By passive and active, I mean understanding language when used vs. using it yourself, like in the terms active/passive vocabulary. My experience learning languages is that active skills are much harder to acquire than passive skills. I'm trying to explain this to someone who is learning a second language for the first time, who wants to focus on active language usage and under-emphasizing passive usage, but I think they are having difficulty because this seems backwards in terms of goals. Are there any good written explanations or academic work on the differences between active vs passive skill acquisition, or on different learning strategies for people who want to focus on one or the other?

  • There is no such thing as "passive language usage skill". One can know things in a language passively as opposed to actively.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 16:11

5 Answers 5


In my opinion, the most convincing layman explanation of why passive language skills are usually superior to the active ones is that many people can read and understand Shakespeare, but very few can write like him.

If I am not mistaken, I have seen it in Linguistics of Teach yourself series, which I would strongly recommend to language learners trying to go a bit beyond the layman level.

  • Reading is not a passive activity. What exactly is: passive language skills? In one's own language, one generally has passive vocabulary.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 14:43
  • @Lambie By passive I mean understanding rather than production (active). Thus, reading and listening are passive, whereas writing and speaking are active skills. These four skills are the basis of CEFR evaluations (although sometimes they also add understanding language structures as the fifth).
    – Roger V.
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 12:41
  • 2
    Please, we don't need debates in comments (deleted), especially rude ones. Commented May 22, 2023 at 6:18
  • No, reading and listening are not passive. Rebecca, I was not rude. I merely made a point.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 16:09
  • I'm sorry but reading and listening are most definitely not considered passive activities in language learning.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 8 at 20:01

There are four skills in language learning, and teaching!

In "order of appearance", they generally are: listening, speaking, reading and...writing. There are people who only learn grammar and how to read. Like certain scientists.

Last I looked at this, none of those is passive.

The CEFR says this:

The CEFR describes what learners can do across five language skills: Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production, Listening, Reading and Writing. For all five skills at each level, there are sets of detailed ‘Can Do’ statements. By dividing Speaking in two, the CEFR focuses both on the learner’s production and their ability to take part in conversations and discussion. So, for example, under Spoken Interaction there is information about Turntaking: a Basic A2 learner Can use simple techniques to start, maintain or end a short conversation, whereas a Proficient C1 learner Can select a suitable phrase to preface their remarks appropriately in order to get the floor, or to gain time and keep the floor whilst thinking.


Another site:

speaking, listening, reading and writing

Passive vocabulary, which is first about one's native language not an L2/

By Richard Nordquist Updated on August 21, 2017 A passive vocabulary is made up of the words that an individual recognizes but rarely uses when speaking and writing. Also known as recognition vocabulary. Contrast with active vocabulary.

According to John Reynolds and Patricia Acres, "Your passive vocabulary is likely to contain more words than the active one. One way to improve the range of the vocabulary in your own writing is to try to transfer words from your passive to the active vocabulary" (Cambridge Checkpoint English Revision Guide, 2013).

passive vocabulary

Generally speaking, you have to have a very high level to have a passive vocabulary in an L2.

The only way to learn a new language is the hard way. You have to listen and repeat a lot. You have to memorize certain things. You have to work very hard. Just like a baby, the first thing you experience is listening, otherwise you don't know how to "say it".

Usually, listening and then speaking go together. For example, doing a situation exercise with a dialog such as: "At the Office" or "At the Train Station". Those will be grouped together in a conversational way, the vocabulary and grammar you are apt to find at those places. **You can only talk about being at the office if you have heard it being talked about in a learning exercise. You can't speak ex nihilo.

Speaking for some people is harder than reading. This is an individual situation. But most people hear and then speak. And you can only speak after a lot of hearing! :)


IMHO (from personal learning experience), it's more complex:

An active vocabulary sufficient to express some complex ideas can still by way too limited to understand native speech.

In addition, native speakers of any language I encountered often speak quite fast, use colloquial expressions, sometimes even dialects, making the understanding task difficult.

So, in more than one language, I've experienced some stage where I was able to express my thoughts (even if sometimes clumsy), but had big troubles understanding the replies.


First of all, I agree with you on the fact that active skills are much harder to acquire than passive skills. Just think of a baby who is exposed to his/her parents’ native language for the first time. It takes some time before he/she is able to create correct sentences, not to mention the complex ones. However, at some point they understand what people are telling them, even if they aren’t able to speak well themselves.

Here it is another example that comes to my mind. If you watch lots of movies or TV series in a foreign language with subtitles on for a long time, at some point you will start to get accustomed to the sounds of the language in question (even without being able to understand what people are saying) and you could also start to recognize some recurring words! This is because you passively listened to people talk in that language for some time.

However, whereas passive language skills could be very useful, acquisition of active skills is on a different level. In fact, it requires an actual effort: the effort that is put into learning about the structure of a language without which speaking it becomes difficult, if not impossible. For example, it is not enough to hear how a word is pronounced by native speakers: you have to try to pronounce it many times so that you’ll memorize it. In the same way, when you encounter new words or grammar structures, you have to try to understand and memorize them first, and then try to use them. This is what it means to make an effort into learning and acquire active skills.

  • There is passive knowledge of/in a language but there is no passive knowledge skill.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 16:08

You could explain it this way:

There are degrees of knowing a word, phrase or pattern. These degrees go from recognition, to effortful understanding, to effortless understanding, to limited/inflexible/dependent production, to gradually broader, more flexible, more independent production. Language learning is in itself a developmental process & it is impossible to skip parts of that process. Analogy: Don't try to run before you can walk.

The consensus among SLA researchers is that learners need large amounts of comprehensible input & that learners need to engage in interpreting (making meaning from) it as the necessary but insufficient first stage of acquisition (I prefer the term language development to acquisition).

By interpreting (making meaning from) language, I mean understanding the content of the messages rather than the language code. In other words, the messages remain the same whether the language code is English, German, Russian, or Chinese. That's the meaning we're aiming for so that learners can make form-meaning connections, where form is the language code & meaning is the content of the messages.

BTW, "use", i.e. listening, speaking, reading & writing, in applied linguistics is never referred to as passive because interpreting (making meaning from) language is an effortful & active set of processes.

I hope this helps! :)


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.