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Vocab: from passive to active


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What ways do you use to move words from passive to active vocabulary?

I want to share a very basic exercise I've been using that's been helpful and ask if others do anything similar or have other ideas.


In Chinese, I'm nowhere near the point where the range of words I can use in spontaneous speech is large enough or varied enough that I can sanguinely shrug off my passive-active difference as acceptable.

SRS is a wonderful tool for vocab acquisition.

But I've found that for me, only reviewing using SRS isn't as good a method to truly push words into my active vocab as is repeated encounters of the words in natural situations. Going in the SRS from the English word to the Chinese is definitely better for me at internalizing the word than Chinese-to-English. And for a relatively small number of new words, it's decent at helping me get comfortable enough that I can produce them naturally on my own in speaking.

But for a relatively larger amount of new words, SRS-only reviews aren't enough in my case to really get the words into active vocab. SRS-reviewing isn't the same as real-life use. I'm remembering the card itself really well, but it's a slightly-unnatural remembering that isn't the same as knowing the word on a deep enough level. I know the word, recognize and understand it when I encounter it, can use it myself if it's already been introduced into the conversation... but it's not deeply ingrained enough that I just easily produce it on my own in spontaneous speech.

New words vary in difficulty to acquire, but for most words I've found the process goes like this:




- it takes many, many reviews of a new word for it to just start sinking into passive vocabulary so I recognize and understand it easily when I encounter it....


- then it takes many more encounters with the word in natural (non-SRS) context to gradually get more familiar with it and able to use it myself when it's already been introduced in the conversation...


- then it really helps to use it myself several more times in real situations so I finally reach a point where I can produce it unprompted on my own in spontaneous speech...


- then it helps to have it reviewed regularly so it doesn't drop back down the scale towards passive.

With enough time and exposure, you really do encounter words often enough to increase your active vocab massively. But to the extent possible, I'd like to make the process more efficient and not rely on chance. You can't really schedule random encounters with the words you're learning. But the next-best-way I've found so far is to have a native-speaker create sentences or questions using the words.

The process I've been using is really simple:


- Study new words and phrases using Anki.


- When I feel that I have a passive knowledge of the word, I put a copy of it into a special "activate" deck. I use my judgement in selecting only those words which I want to have in my active spoken vocab as soon as possible.


- Meet with native-speaker private tutor. Give the computer to the tutor so I can't see anything.


- For each card in the "activate" deck, the tutor makes up a sentence, a brief story or a question using the word. I have to respond back using the word. Depending what the tutor says, I might answer the question, comment on the sentence, etc.


- The tutor judges how quickly I understood the word and how accurately I used it myself, and marks the Anki card accordingly.


- And we do the same for as many cards as we have time for.



It's really just the basic idea of reviewing new vocab with a tutor. But I've found some benefits of doing it this way which I really like:

- The exercise gets me pretty close to the ideal situation of encountering in natural speech specifically those words which I want to push into active vocab. The situation is a little fake, since I'm the one who made the deck, after all. But I've found that the deck is big enough that I have no idea what word will come next. And these are newly-learned words that are only passive anyway; most of the time, I've forgotten that I even put the word into the deck and only remember when I hear it in the sentence and am scrambling to instantly use it. So each new sentence is enough of an unexpected surprise that it really pushes me and drives the word further along the continuum towards active vocab.

- It takes advantage of the SRS system to force reviews of the words when necessary. I played around with options to find the right steps (in minutes); I found for me that it's different for this special "activate" deck than for main vocab acquisition deck.

- I've found that around the 3rd time the word comes up, it's started to be deeply ingrained in a way which I don't achieve with SRS-reviewing on my own only. By the 5th-7th time, it really has become a word I can produce on my own, unprompted and without hesitation, in sentences I make up in spontaneous speech.

- I've found it works best when the tutor creates an entirely new sentence/quick story/question with each new card. I tried having the tutor use each new vocab word to continue the thread of an existing conversation or story, but it wasn't as challenging. I found that having no context at all makes the drill significantly more challenging and beneficial.

- I definitely feel like I'm on the firing line... in a good way. It's like being constantly tested over and over. If the drill consisted of me using the word to make a sentence myself, I would control the vocab and subconsciously push the topic to something I'm familiar with. But because I have no control over what scenario the tutor will create for each card, it really pushes my listening and comprehension skills much more than normal conversation or TV listening. It's rapid-fire understanding practice. There's no escaping or cheating my way out of understanding: there's no context to rely on, no real-world scenario that makes it clear what the tutor is talking about, there's no one else in the conversation to make it easier.  

- I meet with several tutors each week and do the exercise with each of them. I have them all working out of the same deck. I've been surprised at how often the drill helps me learn new usages of each word. About 30% of the time, the usage which the tutor creates is different from the context in which I originally encountered the word and/or the context used by a different tutor. So I've been happy to find that it's not only helped to move the words to my active spoken vocabulary, but to also deepen my understanding of shades of nuance and usage for each word.

- Another unexpected side benefit I've found with this exercise has been to ferret out gaps in my vocabulary.


I've memorized word lists and have been talking enough that I'm at that stage where I know most of the words in most daily conversations. But there are hundreds of very basic topics where I lack vocabulary or the most appropriate phrase to describe something. I'm nowhere near the point yet where spoken language will only infrequently contain new vocab and only written language will push my vocab growth; but on the other hand, just talking or watching TV isn't necessarily efficient at finding those unknown areas.


Out-of-the-blue, context-free sentence drilling has turned out to be great at rapidly and constantly stumbling upon these unknown topics. What I've realized happens is that in having to make up on-the-spot a sentence/question/short story using a random word, the tutor is forced to create a fictional scenario... which usually is of a place or situation which I haven't encountered in my limited Chinese-language life. And every tutor makes up totally different scenarios. So every new fictional scenario comes replete with its own new vocab. Sometimes they say some totally off-the-wall words, but usually I'm really happy to find yet another common spoken word which I should've already known. I record all the sessions; after the lesson, I go through the recordings and throw all the unfamiliar vocab into my main study deck. Some examples from one drill today: cage, roller coaster, to be spilled/flipped over, to two-time your romantic partner (劈腿, hilarious word lol).


Not advanced words at all, but I might not have picked them up for quite a while. And they just keep coming rapid fire in one new scenario after another, over and over, pushing my vocab and expanding the range of words I can easily use in spontaneous speech.


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Sounds like a good method you've got going there.


I think I have a similar problem. My passive vocabulary is quite extensive. I can understand virtually 100% of a newspaper, for example. Even the words I'm not very familiar with are in most cases completely clear from context. But if I am to write a report myself, or describe an event in detail, I am often struggling for the right word. Just yesterday, for example, I had occasion to use 画蛇添足. Hearing or reading this, I would have recognised it straight away, but when wanting to use it myself, I had to think for about five seconds first which kind of kills the effect if you're trying to be witty.

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That sounds like an excellent use of tutor-time, and with practice, the tutor could get really good at devising questions that really help pin down the meanings of the words, i.e. differentiate them from near synonyms. The only downside is it appears that you have to be in the same room with the tutor, unless you want to set up a special Anki account that can be opened on first your computer (to create the deck) and then theirs. Is there any other way to get around this for those who are stuck with tutors on the other end of Skype?

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Is there any other way to get around this for those who are stuck with tutors on the other end of Skype?




You can probably just export the Anki deck to a text file - although when I do this it's all messed up with HTML span tags, so might need to strip out this stuff somehow.


Sounds like a good method you've got going there.




I agree.  This is better than what I do,  I like the idea of providing a list of extra words used for the speaking phase.  I've mostly just been relying on textbooks lists, but that's only some of what I learn.  I should probably also give her a list of target words that I've been learning lately.


You can't really schedule random encounters with the words you're learning. 





Well, one idea that I like is a "Chinese Safari" (needs Chinese speaking environment).  Learn vocabulary in connected groups then go use it in the wild.  Go to the market or temple or theme park and actually talk to people there.  Take your Chinese teacher and only discuss that topic - you will deepen your knowledge of the vocab plus a bunch of extended stuff which you might add to your lists to learn.  I did a few of these with my Chinese school and it's quite useful and fun.


This is really great for learning and solidifying a group of vocabulary, but not so great for long term random revision.


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