How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively – The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary

How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively

If you decide to learn a language, one of the most important decisions you can make is choosing the right learning strategy. This choice will either allow you to progress fast or break you mentally like a twig. It's the difference between moving forward in a Ferrari versus using your tears as a lubricant while you crawl.

In the past, I have written a lot about what factors affect vocabulary acquisition and how to tell decent or good language methods from the bad ones. However, people often mistakenly interpret their initial results with a given method as a sign that it truly works. It's like getting into an expensive SPA and seeing crap-stained walls with the graffiti "Steve was here". Disappointing, that is.

When it comes to increasing your passive vocabulary, it almost doesn't matter which strategy you choose - reading, learning flashcards, humming songs. They will all work, more or less, equally well.

However, testing whether your method of activating vocabulary is effective is way trickier. Let me show you how you can verify it and what you should be wary of.

How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively

2 types of recall

Considering that we're interested in testing whether you know your words actively, we must test your recall. In other words, we must know whether you can retrieve a word in your target language when you signal it to your brain during a conversation.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of recall.

  • free recall
  • cued recall

Free recall

Free recall is the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. There is no natural context which might trigger the words you know.

Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects. Simply put, if you have just finished your learning session and you can feel dozens of words thrumming in your head, you have just experienced recency effect. The information that you are exposed to at the of your studies is easier to recall. The same goes for the information you have contact with at the beginning of your session - that's the primacy effect.

Cued Recall

Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.

The word "cues", or contextual triggers, as I like to call them, are key concepts here.

Why Free Recall Is a Bad Measure of Your Ability to Remember

Anytime somebody switches to a new learning method, especially if their baseline was good, old-fashioned cramming, they might experience improved initial recall. Does it mean that they remember more long-term? Absolutely not, although but a few people are aware of this.

"Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009)."

The word "initial" in this case is just a synonym for short-term learning. It gives you an illusion that knowledge has been acquired. However, once this illusion is confronted by precise measurements, it turns out that not much has been retained.

Free Recall and the Illusion of Knowledge

It's also a very common theme regarding many passive learning strategies like reading, restudying, highlighting, etc. The science knows beyond the shadow of the doubt that they are useless, but students still prefer them over battle-tested strategies like spaced repetition.

1. " For example, studies have shown that learners tend to prefer massing or cramming (table 1) over spacing because of the illusion that it is faster and more effective (Kornell, 2009). Technique Definition Massing Learning events are massed together in a short amount of time. Cramming Special form of massing; learning something intensely, often for the first time, in the days or hours before a test. Spacing Learning events are spaced apart over a longer period of time."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

2. "Despite the clear superiority of the recall method over the restudy method, students report they rarely use it when they study. One reason is that it is simply more work to practice facts by arranging a self-test and recalling them. But there is also something else going on. Studying by recalling just doesn’t seem as effective to students as reading back through their notes. Suppose we ask college students to respond to this scenario:

Students in two different classes read the same one-page essay. In Class A, the students were asked to write down as much as they could remember after they finished. In Class B, the students were given an opportunity to restudy the passage after they finished. After one week, all students were tested on their memory for the passage. Which class would you expect to have the higher test scores?

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation. Why did the students get it wrong? Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

The above echoes something I have been saying for years - if you simply assume that a learning strategy is effective just because you feel some initial benefits, it doesn't make it true. Unless you test it, it's better to suspend your opinion for some time.

Read more:

Example: intensive reading and initial learning

A good example of this phenomenon is intensive reading. It can certainly be a good and effective learning strategy for advances learners, but it's absolutely terrible for beginners.

Intensive reading led to more immediate vocabulary gains but spaced practice led to greater long‐term retention.

These "immediate vocabulary gains" are nothing more than a sign of initial learning. It shouldn't however be confused with long-term retention or, as I call it, the real learning. Sadly, most authors of language-related research don't seem to understand it.

What Is the Measure of Real Learning?

Once again, you can take almost any learning method and you will get (relatively) promising results short-term

However, only transfer tasks, such as using words in a conversation are a good measure of true learning (Mayer, 2009).

The More You Know, the Less You Feel Your Knowledge

Because your knowledge is context-dependent and context-activated. You might know thousands upon thousands of words but you won't "feel" them. Some of them may even stay buried in your mind for years before an opportunity arrives to use them. If you learn how to say "fibroma" in your target language, don't expect to use it unless you encounter a situation wherein you are forced to utilize this word.

This phenomenon can be explained by the concept of habituationThe more we commune with certain stimuli, the less we react to them. In other words, the more you use a language, the less you feel that you really know it. 

That's why some extremely competent language learners claim that they barely know a language at a B2 level, while pitiful beginners run around shouting that they are bilingual.

Read more: 

Stress - a Crucial Factor That Needs to Be Taken Into Consideration

Every good language learning methodology can be encapsulated by the Marines' adage:

"Train as you fight, fight as you train"

You should always to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. Unfortunately, regardless of how good your learning method is, it's almost impossible to incorporate a crucial factor for your ability to retrieve and know your words actively - stress.

Even if you can confidently reproduce words from ANKI at the comfort of your home, it doesn't mean that you will be able to use them in a conversation. Learning in such conditions is always, to some degree, detached from reality. You have time to contemplate the right answer, and everything feels pretty snugly and comfy.

Compare it with a typical conversation where:

  • there is background noise
  • you have to maintain eye contact
  • you need to focus on what your partner is saying 
  • you do your best to control your pronunciation
  • you have to actively reproduce hundreds of words and apply grammar to them
  • etc.

Or to put it plainly, lying under your blankie and doing ANKI is a bit less stressful than trying to recall some word in a conversation while a crazy German local is sparging you with his saliva and screaming "Was?! WAS?!".

How Stress Affects Your Brain

The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary

Talking is stressful, especially for introverts. The worst thing that stress does in such situations is that limits the activity of your frontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for, among, others, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, judgment and language.

Once the cortisol floods your brain, your body goes into the survival mode. You don't need your cool problem-solving skill or silver tongue then. You need to wrestle some huge-ass bear or get the hell out of there. That's why you lose access to any memories and skills that are not well-activated as they are the ones that cost the most energy to retrieve. Your body prioritizes muscle at this point, not ATP-devouring thinking.

"The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the most evolved brain region—subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites." Source: Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function

At the same, stress doesn't seem to affect hippocampus so much. This region of the brain is typically linked to declarative memory, such as memory for events and facts (Squire, 2004; Squire & Zola, 1996). Interestingly, acute mild stress exposure has no effect on or can actually improve the memory consolidation functions of the hippocampus.

If your eyes glazed over after reading these quotes and you started questioning life choice that brought you to this article, let me assure you that they are extremely important. What these facts tell us is this:

"Non-consolidated information that hasn't been transferred to your long-term memory is extremely prone to any stress-related disturbances. On the other hand, long-term memories stored in your hippocampus are immune to mild and medium levels of stress".

That means that it doesn't matter how confidently you can recall words in the comfort of your home. If your vocabulary is not consolidated well enough, instead of producing fluent speech, it might turn out that you sound like a goat in the middle of the breeding period.

However, there is an easy way to fix it.

Want to Know Words Actively? Overlearn!

Items that are difficult to learn should be overlearned to ensure long term retention (Hulstijn, 2001).

Overlearning refers to practicing newly acquired skills beyond the point of initial mastery. In the context of languages, it means that even if you CAN recall a given word while doing ANKI, or in a conversation, but it takes you some time, you can still improve


Unsurprisingly, you need to crank out more sentences with the word. Make sure that the contexts you use vary as well.

Try to recall the last time when you saw a baby (1,5 - 3-year old). Have you noticed that it keeps on repeating the same word over and over again in different sentences and collocations? That's what overlearning is all about. The easiest, or maybe the only way, to apply it properly is to talk to yourself. I dare say that no one would be patient enough to listen to this waffle while being sober.

It's enough that you find a question and start answering it in a very monotonous way while constantly reusing a problematic word.

Q: Do you like apples?

A: Yes, I like apples. Apples are sweet. I like sweet apples, and I eat them often. I don't eat them often when I can't buy them. I but them in a shop, however, if I don't buy them, then I don't eat them.

You get the gist. Children are a wonderful example of overlearning in action. For example, not that long time ago, my son got so excited by getting a piece of cheese that he repeated this word 53 times (yes, I counted).

53 freaking times. It made me feel lazy and question the effort I put into learning!

How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively - Summary

Most language learning methodologies are plagued by one fatal flaw. They make you believe that being able to reproduce a word in the comfort of your home is equivalent to really knowing it.

Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated. First of all, the ultimate test of your active vocabulary is always a conversation. If you can comfortably recall your newly acquired vocabulary, then you can be relatively confident that your approach works. I say "relatively" because unless you test a given method, you can't be sure that it's precisely what makes you recall words effectively. Most of the time, it's the results of combining a couple of learning strategies. 

What's more, if your learning method doesn't involve context and active transfer of your vocabulary between contexts, you can rest assured that it sucks.

Last but not least, if your learning strategy does involve context and active information transfer them, you should put more effort into overlearning those problematic words.

Keep in mind that this is one of those situations where individual differences kick in. Some people are more immune to stress than others. As a consequence, the degree to which you will have to overlearn words will often depend on your genetics and environmental conditioning.

Done reading? Time to learn!


Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.


Achieve Full Language Fluency with the Deep Integration of Languages into Your Daily Life

full language fluency of a foreign languages

Achieving full language fluency is certainly not easy. The internet is filled with all sorts of advice on how to do it. And that's on top of all those shiny lists of language learning tools. No wonder, after all, these are extremely important elements in the whole process. However, in a whirlwind of all kinds of language learning discussions, it's easy to lose sight of one thing - the criterion of utility.

The utility criterion tells us one very simple thing - we should preferentially use things that are directly applicable in our lives.

It doesn't matter how much time you spend going through your textbooks. If the language is not part of your life, the textbook will most often be thrown in the corner at the first sign of a life/time crisis.

It is not difficult to imagine that you are going on vacation for 2 weeks and completely neglect your studies because YOLO, and "let's party dude!". Or suddenly you get sick and you feel so weak that you lack the strength to lift a book.

Sure, you can blame this state of affairs on your lack of willpower or the adverse conjunction of the planets, but the fact is that your contact with language has been neglected because it is not a part of your life!

Full language fluency - languages as a versatile tool

Perhaps the entire system of education is to blame. We are used to thinking that language is yet another school subject. Or thinking that learning a language is drudgery and that "I will cram a couple more words and then I am finally free and will do something interesting."

We forget that language is a tool. And not just any! We're not talking about a rusty knife with a bent handle.

We're talking about a cool Swiss army knife!

There are many ways to integrate languages into your daily life to guarantee that you will achieve full fluency.

Remember that the deeper the integration, the greater the chance that you will learn the language not only fluently but also quickly.

Foreign languages as a tool for entertainment

Broadly understood entertainment is certainly one of the easiest changes you can make. There are so many ways to relax after all! What's more, nobody has to force us to do it. I am yet to hear a mom yelling at her son, "Stop learning, you dweeb. Watch something for once. Oh! I have failed as a parent!".

Here are a few "entertainment" categories that you should include in your daily plan:

Remember that no activity is a waste of time if it is done in a foreign language.

1) Full language fluency - Music

Music is not only a great tool to improve your listening comprehension, but it can also help you to remember words better.

If you don't know what to listen to in the language of your choice, I highly recommend the Music Map website. It allows you to quickly find a lot of exciting artists based on your current musical tastes.

In other words - enter the artist's name and enjoy the sweet view of dozens of other artists.

Here is an example for Rammstein:

2) Full language fluency - watching movies / series

Films, and in particular TV series, are one of the pleasures you don't need to convince anyone of. Often, no more than a few days is enough to get an incurable condition called "one more episode-itis".

Here is a list of some interesting sites where you can watch TV series or movies in the original language or dubbed. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section.

You can find more resources in my Language Links Database.

I recommend Netflix in particular. You can change a default language of TV series and movies there as well as enable subtitles.

And all this without worrying that the link on the page does not work or that you will see for the 10th time in one day "Do you want to meet singles in your area?". It is one of the best language investments I've made over many years.

3) Full language fluency - exploring interests

Like most people, you are probably quirky. You have your own world, and your own interests to which you can effortlessly devote lots of time. Why not use it to get one step close to achieving full language fluency?

It doesn't matter if you are interested in reading thyme dregs or a 50-meter chinchilla throw. I guarantee you that a little googling is enough to find forums or websites of people who share your passion.

Here are some examples of interesting sites:

4) Full language fluency - gossip magazines

I will say it again - nothing is a waste of time if it is done in foreign languages! The next time your husband catches you reading about Brad Pitt's iron buttocks, just shout shrilly "I'm learning! Do not disturb!" Or do it in German to fluster him. That works better than a pepper spray.

I feel dirty writing this, but here are some recommendations:
  • English (
  • French (
  • German (
  • Spanish (

5) Full language fluency - Computer games

If you are hellbent on keeping the last link connecting your childhood with the cold and cruel world of adults alive, I recommend taking up computer games. Especially those that are rich in various dialogues.

The best site where you can find computer games in many languages is Steam.

Foreign language as a tool for professional development

The modern world is not a welcoming place. If you have any hopes of becoming a force to be reckoned with, you need to develop and sharpen your skills continually. Just a moment of inattention is enough to get mangled by the competition, who will then proceed to graciously stomp over your carcass. Terrible. I know.

I recommend finding your preferred sources of specialized information in languages of your choice. This is the easiest way always to be one step ahead of most people in your industry.

Warning - the initial shock

It is worth mentioning that deep integration of a foreign language into life is not all butterflies and rainbows. Initially, you may feel strong resistance from the brain. This pink, slimy bastard will try to talk you out of trying to surround yourself with a foreign language, "John, don't learn Korean! What will neighbors say?".

You should be ready for it. It will pass with time. However, it remains an open question how much time will be needed for this.

If you already have some experience with intensive language learning, you probably won't need much time to get used to new experiences. If you're inexperienced, accept that you'll need up to a few weeks.

Achieving Full language fluency - Summary

Often the main difference between a person who has mastered a language and the one who has given up is the extent to which they have made the language part of their lives.

Each additional activity performed in a given language anchors it even deeper.

Such integration will make your learning fully resistant to the turmoils of life. The border between "cramming" and normal life will begin to blur, and eventually it will disappear.

You will always know when this moment will come, as it is truly unforgettable. It reveals itself in the following question: "Did I read / hear it in a foreign language or in my native tongue?"

Done reading? Time to learn!


Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 12 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.


The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult

The curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge

A fascinating and, let's be honest, an inseparable part of human nature is attributing to oneself mainly positive qualities, i.e. egocentric bias.

Egocentric bias - a tendency to explain the consequences of one's own behavior in such a way as to increase positive and reduce negative significance for one's self-esteem.

And maybe I am slightly prejudiced because of my interest in memory, but it seems to me that nowhere else is it as visible as in the work we do.

How many times have you met a doctor, IT specialist, or even a chef who said he was average or mediocre? That's right. It doesn't happen often.

The truth is, there are very few real experts. Not that people are lazy or lacking in intelligence.

All because of the phenomenon I call ... * sinister background music *


What is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge?

Before proceeding to clarify the nature of the curse itself, it is worth starting with a reminder of what the Pareto principle is.

The Pareto principle

The Pareto principle says that statistically, in many areas of life, 20% of the potential causes are associated with 80% of the results.

This does not mean, of course, that the ratio is always 20/80. Sometimes it will be 10/90 or 30/70.

The most important conclusion, however, is that most often a relatively small group of variables will be responsible for most of the results.

How does this relate to the work we do?

The Pareto principle for work

By transposing the above rule onto professional soil, it is not difficult to notice that in any profession there are a limited number of tasks or problems that will dominate the workload.

Knowledge Pyramid

The next step that will help you understand the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge is to look at the knowledge pyramid.

Although it is sometimes criticized for lack of precision, this pyramid still shows one important thing: active learning, such as performing activities, guarantees much more effective assimilation of information.

In other words, the information we don't use very quickly fades from our minds.

What's more, the more abstract the information is, the faster we forget it.

Final explanation of the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge

Summarizing the above, we can say that:

  1. 1
    A limited number of problems and tasks fill most of the time in any profession.
  2. 2
    Unused knowledge (especially abstract) quickly leaves our minds.

And this is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge.

Most of us have no idea how to retain a great deal of knowledge in our mind, and thus it is quickly forgotten. At the same time, we do not have to suffer undue consequences for this. The lesser amount of knowledge we have and use is able to address the tasks we face, through repetition caused by the Pareto principle.

Thus, most people are at a level of competence that guarantees no one will kick them in the ass, making them a corporate piñata.

But make no mistake about it - it is the so-called survivable level of competence, which is self-sustaining at most.

However, it is no indicator of sophistication or highly specialized knowledge.

An example of a hamster wheel of knowledge - building muscle mass

Initially, I wanted to Google relevant articles or statistics for this section. However, I found that it would be easier to just relate an anecdote from my own life, which for some reason stuck in my mind.

It was relatively easy for me to notice it because I obsessively remember absolutely everything in every field that interests me, in particular anything related to medicine, nutrition and physiology.

A good friend of mine, during one of our conversations, mentioned that he is considering testosterone supplementation because he is not particularly pleased with the growth rate of his muscle mass.

The training and nutrition plan that he got from his trainer with 15 years of experience can be called a classic.

Lift 3 times a week for power to hit every muscle group 2-3 times, eat 5 meals a day, and ingest a ton of strange supplements that if they had an effect, it was definitely a placebo.

After looking at the whole thing, it turned out that:
  • His basal metabolic rate was poorly calculated and was not further adjusted for his weight loss.
  • The optimal amount of protein needed for muscle mass synthesis had been incorrectly calculated.
  • Before starting training, he was not asked to perform thyroid tests. To be honest, I've never heard a trainer instruct a client in my life, despite the fact that in the event of a thyroid disorder, muscle building and regeneration will be impaired.
  • The coach hasn't recommended measuring baseline testosterone. Most mean nowadays have abysmally low levels of this hormone, and it can be easily increased.
  • Carnosine had been recommended as a supplement, although it is found abundantly in meat which my friend eats in abundance. For example, about 450 g of chicken has 2g of carnosine in it, and 450 g of beef about 1.5g. At the same time, the saturation threshold for carnosine is about 2g. After crossing the threshold, it ceases to be effectively absorbed in the small intestine.
  • It was recommended to take BCAA, or branched chain amino acids. This is all the more strange because it is taught in school that proteins are broken down into amino acids and that proteins of animal origin contain large amounts of branched chain amino acids. In addition, he also took whey protein hydrolyzate, which as a supplement of animal origin is also broken down into amino acids, including large quantities into branched chain amino acids.
  • Etc.

I could go on and on about what else could be done, but I think the above is enough to highlight the following thought:

the moment when you think you know enough is the moment when you condemn yourself to mediocrity.

To become a real expert, you need to constantly expand your knowledge.

Let's discuss the simple ways you can do it.

How to fight the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge

Don't worry. We are not talking about smearing your face with bat guano or sticking dill into your colon during the new moon. I mean, it will certainly not hurt, but it won't be that useful.

The following approach is needed here:

1. Have a system

99% of the people I've ever talked to have absolutely no systematic way of acquiring knowledge.

Most often they work on the principle of throwing wet paper at the wall. If you read or listen to information enough, something will probably stick.

If you give yourself 20 years to be decent in your field of choice, then the above solution is completely rational.

However, if you want to do it much faster, create your own learning system.

By the learning system I mean a fixed way of acquiring new information.

The one I usually recommend is simply downloading a review optimization program (e.g. ANKI) and entering the information you want to remember.

2. Don't stop learning

It doesn't matter how much you already know. It's always worth assuming that you still don't know enough. If you already study regularly, you should not have special problems with this.

If you have trouble with regularity, you can always set an overarching rule that you must stick to every day.

It can be, for example, learning 3 new facts a day.

3. Create a knowledge map

I say it repeatedly: one of the biggest challenges in science is to be aware of what we don't know as accurately as possible.

Although this sounds abstract, it is perfectly logical. Until you know that there is knowledge that you have not yet acquired, you will not be able to access it in any way, nor will you be able to even consider using it to solve a problem.

A good example is an IT specialist who has learned to program in a given language at an intermediate level and has been using the same commands over and over again to solve various kinds of problems.

Although this knowledge level is often sufficient to solve the problem, it is neither optimal nor efficient.

So your goal is to create a long-term knowledge map, i.e. a list of things you need to learn. You can do this even by browsing through appropriate textbooks or courses and systematically acquiring encountered knowledge.

Have you noticed any signs of the hamster wheel of knowledge curse in your immediate surroundings? Let me know in the comments!

Done reading? Time to learn!


Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 13 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.