English Speaking Topics The Difference Between Expressive And Receptive Vocabulary Ep 433

Children playing together in the UAE. In this English speaking topic we learn much about learning English vocabulary by observing the way children learn.

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💬 1938 words ▪️ ⏳ Reading Time 10 min

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English Speaking Topics - Don't Beat Yourself Up

If you are learning a new language it’s normal to think, hmm I’ve been doing this for weeks or months, how am I doing? Is this where everyone gets to when they put in this much time and effort in? So today in this English language podcast we pick an English-speaking topic that will help us understand what your expectations should be in terms of English listening comprehension vs your ability to speak English.

I’ve recently seen several comments and received a few emails asking where the transcripts for these lessons are. Well, the quick answer is on our website here, or built into the YouTube videos as closed captions here. Basically, we provide a free transcript as a PDF document which you can download and as a web page article with every episode. If you are struggling with understanding some words, you hear in our podcast, you can grab the transcript and google or use a dictionary to lookup anything you don’t understand.

If you are a regular listener, you know that I often use children as an example of how we gain languages. Today is no exception. Adult language learners have a habit of setting unrealistic expectations and then they judge themselves harshly when they cannot meet goals and objectives. This can happen even when our intentions are good.

You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.
⭐ Franklin P. Jones

So in today’s English speaking topic we will cover what is typical, in percentage terms, of where your English listening comprehension should be verses your English-speaking ability.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 3 word phrases:

A Big Difference3
I Can Understand2
Learning A Language2
The Bottom Of2

Listen To The Audio Lesson Now

The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: English Speaking Topics The Difference Between Expressive And Receptive Vocabulary

Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. If you’re enjoying our podcasts and you use Apple Podcasts, then please help keep Adept English going, by giving us a rating. It took me quite a while to find my way around Apple podcasts – but if you’re playing an episode, click on the three dots at the bottom of your screen, on the right hand side. Click ‘go to show’ – and then if you page down all the way to the bottom of the screen, you can give us a star rating.

We would really appreciate that – or any rating you can give us on the platform that you normally use to listen to Adept English. Thankyou for that – we really appreciate it - it makes a big difference to us.

Your English learning vocabulary

One of the things that we are really clear about at Adept English, when you’re learning a language, there is a big difference between the number of words which you can comfortably understand when you listen and the number of words which you can use in English, when you come to speak.

You would be really unusual as a language learner, if you didn’t have a big difference here. And yet this is one of the things which cause language learners to lack confidence, to feel that their learning isn’t going as well as it should be. Often language learners ‘beat themselves up’ – that’s an expression we use a lot in English, to mean that we criticise ourselves. ‘To beat oneself up’ literally means to punch oneself, to hurt oneself.


Language learners self-criticise!

So we say to ourselves ‘Oh, I’m so bad at learning English!’. We say to ourselves ‘I can understand, but when I try to speak, it’s so much more difficult or the words just don’t come!’. Or simply ‘Even when I can understand words, it takes me a long time before I remember them well enough to use them myself’. And as language learners, we say this to ourselves, as though there’s something wrong with us – as though we have some kind of deficiency!

But I would say to you – there is no deficiency here – that’s perfectly normal. Your brain is behaving in just the way that it’s meant to.

What’s normal child development when language learning?

How about we look at what happens to children, when they’re learning a language – to see what’s normal? After all, we all successfully learned our own language as children, didn’t we? As a natural part of growing up. So what did that process look like?

Well, you can put into Google or any other search engine ‘How many words does a six year old know?’ - in their native language, of course. What comes back? Well, you get estimates, you get statistics. So an informed answer to ‘How many words does a six year old know?’ differentiates between the number of ‘receptive’ vocabulary words and the number of ‘expressive’ vocabulary words.


A photograph of a teacher reading and young students listening. In This English listening topic we explain the difference between expressive and receptive vocabulary.

©️ Adept English 2021

So our vocabulary here? ‘Receptive’, RECEPTIVE is an adjective from the verb ‘to receive’ – and ‘receptive vocabulary’ means those words which you can understand when you hear them. The adjective ‘expressive’, EXPRESSIVE comes from the verb ‘to express’, meaning to put your thoughts into words – to speak. So ‘receptive vocabulary’ is what we can understand and ‘expressive vocabulary’ means the number of words that we can use. So what I’m saying here – it is normal for there to be a difference between a language learner’s ‘receptive’ vocabulary and their ‘expressive’ vocabulary, a difference between what they can understand and what they can say. But how much of a difference? 10%, 15% , 30% difference?

How many words does a six year old know? Receptive and expressive words

Well, a typical answer to the question ‘How many words does a six year old know?’? Well, a typical website says that a six year old in their native tongue typically has around 20,000-24,000 receptive vocabulary words and 2,600 expressive vocabulary words.

Numbers are difficult to understand straight away – so let me just say that again. The typical six year old, in their native language, knows 20,000-24,000 words that they can understand. And how many do they know well enough to say? Yes, that’s right – typically 2,600. So that’s a bit of a difference then, isn’t it?! Probably a bigger difference than you were expecting me to say.

Clearly individual children vary, but if we take that as an average, a typical six year old can only use 10-13% of the words that they can understand! Or put another way, when a six year old speaks, their vocabulary is only 10-13% the size of their vocabulary of words they understand. On the whole, six year olds don’t worry about this – and neither do their parents. We just accept they can understand much more complex sentences that they can say. It’s normal!

Don’t beat yourself up! It doesn’t help your language learning!

But the problem with adult language learners – we can beat themselves up over it! We all do it – but we don’t need to. So when you listen to this podcast – and you understand most of what I’m saying in it – that’s great.

Hopefully, you feel good about that. But when it comes to speaking, you might be saying to yourself ‘I have a problem because when I speak, I can use only simple words, short sentences. Therefore I’m no good at English.’

So the intention of this podcast is to say to you ‘Don’t beat yourself up!’ The vocabulary you use when you speak or write will have in it only about 10% of the words you can understand. That’ means you’re doing fine! Don’t worry! It’s perfectly normal.

Start with speaking about concrete things – speaking about abstracts will come later

And if the meanings that you are able to express are much more literal, much more concrete than the meanings you can understand, that’s normal too. It’s easier to speak about things ‘in the real world’ in a new language – ‘That chair is green’, ‘The supermarket is open’ or ‘Yes please, I would like some coffee’.

Download The Podcast Audio & Transcript

They’re the sort of sentences that you can manage. But at the same time, you might be able to understand something much more subtle or abstract like ‘Don’t beat yourself up – it’s normal to for your expressive vocabulary to be only 10-13% the size of your receptive vocabulary!’ That’s a much more complex sentence than those previous ones. But having these two levels of vocabulary learning is normal!

The Adept English 500 Most Common Words will help you

If you would like to consolidate your basic English vocabulary, one way to do this would be to do our Most Common Five Hundred Words Course. This is a whole course, which uses only the most common 500 words in English. Or it did – in the new, revamped version of the course, there’s now an extra section, which uses the most common 600 words.

Boost Your Learning With Adept English

Even better then! And I was amazed when I was writing the course, how much more I could say with 600 words, than with 500 words! So when it comes to speaking, even a hundred words makes a difference. So this course will consolidate your expressive vocabulary, will consolidate the words you use when you speak, so it’s still a good investment, even if your understanding level is at a much higher level. And after all, it’s amazing what you can say with just the 500 hundred most common words.

Go to our website at adeptenglish.com, buy this course and find out!


Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.




The voice of Adeptenglish, loves English and wants to help people who want to speak English fluently.
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