Passive language (receptive bilingual) skill – what does it mean?

by | Sep 4, 2013 | Challenges, Family life, Language | 4 comments

Passive language (receptive bilingual) skill - what does it mean?

I have mentioned the term passive language skill a few times time before in my posts: if you have a passive knowledge of a language you can understand some or most of it but you are not able to communicate in it yourself.

Mostly there has been a bit of a warning attached to passive language skills – if a child does not get enough interaction in one of the family languages, the language could change from being actively used to being only understood. However, it is important to emphasise that a passive knowledge of a language is significantly better than no knowledge at all.


It is not unusual 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 they no longer feel confident in using one of the languages. The crucial change is that after starting school children 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.

All this said, if this has already happened to you or your child – can a passive language be turned back into an active one? It sure can, and the passive knowledge will be a huge help in relearning the language. What it takes is motivation and time and depending on which learning route you take, maybe some money as well. The most effective and possibly the quickest way to elevate a language skill from passive to active is to spend time in an environment where you are surrounded by the language and will have to interact in it. You also need patient people to support you and help you gain confidence in speaking the language.

All I can say is: keep talking!

May the peace and power be with you.


© Rita Rosenback 2013

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  1. Laura

    Hi. Spanish is my native language and I’m trying to raise my two kids (3.5 and 2 years old) bilingual. We live in the USA and my husband does not know Spanish. I have always spoken to them only in Spanish (at home and outside) since birth. I even decided to be a stay home mom to give them more exposure to Spanish since we live in an area where little Spanish is spoken. I feel very confident that both of my girls understand both languages very well however since my 3 year old started preschool has switched to speak to me mainly in English and only uses Spanish words when she does not know the same word in English. She had a mild speech delay than seems to be a thing of the past but still verbal communication is not her “strength”. My two year old is better at speech and uses more Spanish but is also starting to switch to English, repeating after her sister. For a period I was not responding to them unless the spoke in Spanish to me but that has proven to be more difficult that I expected. Now I try most times to repeat what they said back to them in Spanish and then answer the comment/question still in Spanish. I try to never speak to them in English but I’m afraid that more and more they will become “passive” in the Spanish language. Should I still try to “force” them to speak back in Spanish to me?

    • Rita Rosenback

      I so feel for you. This phase in your girls’ language development will take a lot of commitment and persistence on your side, but if you stick with it, I am sure that you can achieve your goal of keeping Spanish active. To answer your last question first: I know some parents have successfully used the technique of refusing to understand when a child speaks in the wrong language, in this way forcing the child to speak the “right” language – and that this technique has worked. Personally I have never been in favour of forcing a child to behave in a certain way when it comes to language, as I wouldn’t want to associate the language with it being a “must” instead of a “want”. You are right to always answer, and do it in Spanish, repeating what they said in English. I know it can be tiring, but stick with it and you will be so happy you did later on. It also might be time to introduce some incentives for your daughters – depending on what motivates them, you could try a sticker chart where they get points for different Spanish related activities. Here are just a few ideas for when they could get points:
      – asking you what a word is in Spanish instead of using the English equivalent
      – not using English words when they speak Spanish
      – singing a Spanish song
      – speaking Spanish with each other
      Also think of activities that can only be done in Spanish: read a lot of books, watch comics together and discuss what the characters are doing. Get a new toy, an action figure, a doll or a soft toy, give it a Spanish name and a “history” which means it only speaks Spanish, then involve this toy in a lot of activities. In short, try to come up with situations where Spanish is THE language of communication and make the situations engaging for your girls.
      Best of luck, I am sure you can do it!

      • Laura

        Thank you Rita. Those are great suggestions. I used some incentives today and eventhough it took some convincing it did work. It was music to my ears hearing them saying a phrase in Spanish.

        • Rita Rosenback

          Fantastic! Keep it up and repeat the activities that you notice your girls are responding to best! Your comment made my day an even better one 🙂 Thank you!



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