Mar 232016

Receptive bilingualism

When discussing the language skills of children in multilingual families, you occasionally come across the situation where a child has learnt to understand a language, but is unable (or unwilling) to speak it. Quite often you will find this described as passive bilingualism – I have used this expression myself, until Professor Grosjean pointed out to me that it is misleading and gives the wrong impression. The correct term is receptive bilingualism.

Understanding a language is anything but a passive process

To be able to understand what someone says to you, your brain has had to do a lot of preparation work and it has to stay highly alert while the discussion is ongoing. It picks up and processes the sound impulses and turns these random sequences of sounds into something we can comprehend and put into context. It does all this in a matter of milliseconds. You can go here or here for more in-depth information on the process of understanding spoken language.

How does receptive bilingualism occur?

It is sometimes the case that children in multilingual families learn the family languages and happily speak them when they are small, but then something slowly changes and in their teens the children no longer feel confident in using their minority language. This can happen very gradually, even without the parents really realising it.

Parents have told me that one day they just noticed that the majority language had crept in as the main language between them and the children, and that only the parents spoke the minority language between them. When the parents tried to change the situation, they were met by resistance from the children and gave up. The children did not feel motivated in picking the language up again.

The crucial phase for maintaining a minority language

The crucial phase seems to be when kids start school and spend more time with their peers and get more exposure to the majority language of the community and get used to it as their main language of communication.

This is the time when it is important for parents to stay alert and be persistent (and consistent) and continue speaking the languages they have used with their children since they were small. At this point children need a lot of support from their parents to ensure that they will retain their ability to communicate in the family languages. It might not always be easy, but it will pay off and everyone will be pleased later in life that they made the effort.

Why receptive bilingualism can be something highly positive

The phrase passive bilingualism comes with a baggage of negative connotations. If a child does not get enough interaction in one of the family languages, the language can change from being actively used to being only understood. Hence, I suppose, the use of the word “passive” to describe it. It is however important to emphasise that understanding a language is significantly better than not having any knowledge at all of it!

If this has happened in your family, or to yourself, do keep in mind that a receptive language skill can be turned into a productive” one. I experienced this myself years ago, when during a visit to India, I convinced myself to make use of the Punjabi skills I had picked up by listening to my daughter speaking it with her father and start speaking, little by little. I did not stay long enough in India to become anywhere near fluent, but I was able to make myself understood. I was able to communicate the basics.

With enough motivation and opportunity to use the language, it can be revived!

May the peace and power be with you.


© Rita Rosenback 2017

Bringing up a Bilingual Child by Rita RosenbackNever miss a post! Sign up to the Multilingual Parenting newsletter and I will send you a recap of the week’s posts every Sunday. Every second week you will receive a more extensive issue with links to research articles and interesting posts from other writers, as well as handy tips and ideas!
Want to read more like this? My book Bringing up a Bilingual Child is available on Amazon and in well-stocked bookshops.
Do you have a specific question? You can send it to our team of Family Language Coaches and we will reply in a Q&A (questions are answered in order of arrival).
If you are interested in tailor-made family language coaching, please, contact me and I will send you a proposal.


  9 Responses to “Receptive bilingualism – understanding but not speaking a language”

  1. Dear Rita,

    Our family is an iternational family I’m from Hungary, My husband is from Italy, My son was born in The USA, and our 2 girs were born in Germany, but we moved a lot. My son is 9, he speaks hungarian (not fluent) italian (let’s say very well but not perfect) as we live in Germany he is learning german, and he is going to The international School, so he is picking up english too. His teacher recomanded to stop to teach him hungarian and focus in his italian, because non of one language is perfect.. So what do you think would it be better to give up My language???

    Best Regards.


    • Don’t ever let someone tell you to give up your language! Continue to speak to him in Hungarian and expose him as much as you can, without forcing, to your culture, music, food, cinema, etc.

    • Dear Linda

      Thank you for your question and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. The short answer is that I would not give up on Hungarian, however there are some aspects you need to take into consideration. We now answer indepth questions only through the Q&A section and your question will be featured on Sunday the 5th of June. You will find a link to the Q&A on the home page on that day.

      In the meantime, please do not hesitate to send us any further details you would like us to consider when answering your question.

      Due to the high number of questions coming in, I realise there will be a while before you get a response. However, should you be interested in individual family language coaching, please respond to this message and I will send you some further details about the different options.

      Kind regards,

    • Hi Linda,

      my reply can now be read in this Q&A!

      Kind regards,

  2. Dear Rita,

    I’m a Chinese mum and our family lives in China. I majored in TESOL and was obsessed in bilingualism. So my hubby and I always talk to my daughter in English and the others talk to her in Chinese. Now she’s 3 and she cannot talk,at all. She can understand Chinese and English, English much better, but she never speaks. Sometimes she mutters alien languages which I just fail to understand. So far, she can pronounce ‘ma-ma’ (but not directly to me), ‘apple’ (occurs several times) ‘water'(occurs several times),’banana'(occurs several times). That’s all.

    So far I do not see any signs that she wants to talk or communicate. She only comes to us when she wants something. I think that even bilingual kid should talk by now.I tried to give her the favourite food only after she said something. She would cry and cry and would not give in. Does this belong to receptive bilingualism?

    She starts kindergarten already and she’s the only one who cannot talk. Since she cannot talk, she cannot behave herself. She won’t listen. She only respond to ‘sit down’ ‘pee’, etc. and other stuff when she wants. I am sooo worried. At first I was confident to be persistent but now they all suggest that I go to some therapy. To be honest, I don’t think our therapist, not linguist, is capable of helping. Any advice? Please!!

    I appreciate your time and help!

    • Dear Warmice,

      thank you for your message – and sorry for the late reply. You mention that your 3-year-old daughter can understand both languages, but does not speak yet. You are clearly very worried about this situation, so I would strongly recommend that you contact a speech and language therapist, and also have your daughter’s hearing checked. My younger daughter behaved very similarly to yours at the same age – being a very later talker, but before she was four she started speaking in both her languages at the same time. However, every child is different, so this is why I recommend that you do make an appointment with a speech and language therapist who is familiar with bilingual children, so you get a proper assessment and can decide on further actions if they are needed.

      We will also pick up your question in a Q&A on the 25th of August, so please revisit on that day!

      Kind regards

      • Dear Rita,

        I appreciate your answer. The problem is that I cannot find proper pathologist or language therapist nearby. It is easier to get her to listen in English. Apparently no doctors can do that for me. But I’ll take your advice and have her hearings checked. I personally tried to ask her to give me the card of ‘blue’ and ‘balloon’ and ‘cake’/’cookie’. She successfully completed the tasks without any problem. Recently she can articulate clearly ‘red’, ‘orange’ and ‘yellow’.

        My guess is that she has gotten too much input but we never trained her to output. It seems to me that now the TV has replaced us. Besides, I’ve no idea how I can train her to learn the pronunciation step by step (I’m trying to learn). Also I tell myself that I cannot force her to speak anymore. I’m worried that she will make great effort to resist me instead of focusing on the content I force her to focus. But are there any suggestions in terms of how to guide her to get away from TV and interact with me more often. Apparently now I’m much less interesting than the TV is.

        Again I appreciate your time and help!


        • Hello Warmice

          Mary-Pat has now written an extensive response to your question with lots of suggestions on how to motivate your daughter to talk. You can find the Q&A here.

          Kind regards

  3. Dear Rita,
    I am a thirteen-year-old girl. My family speaks Thai, Hindi, and more but I can speak none of them. I understand Thai extremely well and put no effort at all into understanding, but I can only speak two or three sentences all with improper grammar. I was told that when I was younger, I spoke very good Thai, but now I can’t. I can also understand Hindi moderately well, and even though I took years of classes, I am very slow at reading and can’t speak it at all. I’m afraid it may be late for me. I don’t have time to take a class. How should attempt to relearn them?

    Thank you.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>