This week the volcano will replace earthquakes as the metaphor for language learning. In my German children’s book on earthquakes and volcanos, there is a section with the heading Aktive, schlafende und tote Vulkane – “active, sleeping and dead volcanos.” (Later on they introduce the term “extinct,” erloschene, which as a noun das Erlöschen refers to the “expiration” of patents and the like. (Interestingly, the –chen doesn’t appear to mean “small” here but the noun still fits the pattern and takes das.) As a verb, erlöschen refers to something that “stops burning” or “goes out” or “fizzles out” or “expires.” They also introduce ruhende which means “dormant.”)
The book goes on to say that in interior of dormant volcanos, there is lava seething and boiling and no one can say when the volcano will erupt again. All this sounds quite a bit like active and passive vocabulary or grammatical knowledge. The British Council gives this definition of passive vocabulary (which a grammar maven would disparage for the use of “a learner” and “they” especially here when a plural subject would not have been at all odd):
A learner’s passive vocabulary is the words that they understand but don’t use yet. This can be compared with active vocabulary, which are words that learners understand and use in speaking or writing. The active and passive vocabulary of a learner changes constantly. They start using words, try new meanings, forget words, abandon words that have no use, revise words, etc.
An active volcano is spewing a lot of stuff, a passive or dormant one is not. The words in your active vocabulary and the structures in your active grammatical knowledge-base get used a lot. And just like geological systems, our vocabularies and grammatical knowledge are constantly in flux: the words and structures that are held passively may not yet have reached the “boiling” point where they ready to spew out of our mouths or fingers/pens/pencils.
The following expression, like the swinging chandelier of last week, gives me a nice picture to focus on when I get a bit frustrated with my progress: wie auf einem Vulkan leben – “like sitting on a powder keg/time bomb” or literally “like living on a volcano.” It seems that there is hope that at some point the passive will become active and I will experience an explosive growth of expressive ability.