Q&A: Can a passive language speaker help a child become bilingual?

by | Nov 13, 2014 | Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family | 9 comments


I would like to hear what your thoughts are about this:

Languages: minority language (ml) – Spanish, majority language (ML) English
Strategy: One parent, one language (OPOL)
Country: USA
Child: 1 year old

Let’s say we found someone who could babysit our kid 4 times a week (28 hrs). She is a ml passive speaker, who was fluent in the ml in early childhood but became a passive speaker overtime. She still understands ml but naturally responds in ML. She can say short expressions in ml and read some ml books but cannot hold a long conversation.

Definitely ML will be the main language for our son and her to communicate, but I was wondering if the fact that she could read to him and use some words and expressions in the ml would help with the exposure to the ml he needs.



Thanks for your question – an interesting one!

If I understand correctly, you are raising your young child in English and Spanish using the OPOL strategy. I would be curious to know which parent does which language and the amount and nature of time each parent is able to dedicate to this purpose. However, regardless of the answer, since the minority language is Spanish, I believe it is wise to reinforce it in the home. Most children have a natural tendency to adopt the majority language once they enter a community setting (school, for example).

So, my answer to your ultimate question is yes, I believe that even though the babysitter is a passive speaker of the minority language, reading to him and teaching him words and expressions in the minority language will be of great benefit. If the babysitter clearly understands and is comfortable with what you are asking of her, she will be able to introduce Spanish in a simple, playful manner that will certainly appeal to your child and arouse his curiosity and interest. Also, as she was fluent in Spanish in her early childhood years, her accent should still be native, which will be an added plus for your child. I believe you have many benefits to gain by recruiting the help (and bilingual talents) of your child’s babysitter in raising a bilingual child.

I would love to hear from you again to know how it works out for you.


Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.


  1. Annabelle

    I completely agree with Maria that it is the minority language that should be reinforced. And it seems as though Dani is aware of this. However, I would personally think that the benefits of the said babysitter will not be that significant. Sure, she will be able to read in Spanish but the bulk of the conversations is going to be held in English? I guess if there is really no other option, it is better than no Spanish at all, but would try and look for other avenues too as the Spanish input is going to be limited.
    Also I find the term passive speaker rather confusing. The two words are contradictory in my mind. I would think she could be called a passive bilingual in Spanish, because she understands and can use some limited Spanish.

    • Rita

      I agree about the term ‘passive speaker’ – there is nothing passive about speaking and I would extend this to ‘passive understanding’ as well. Understanding a language is a very complex process and there is nothing “passive” about it. The preferred term would be “receptive bilingual”, but I am not sure this is a term that everyone would be familiar with.

  2. Rita

    If the choice for a babysitter is between a monolingual English-speaker and someone who understands, but does not speak Spanish, I would go for the latter. Of course, the best option would be a fluent Spanish-speaker as a babysitter for your child – but from the way you ask the question this may not be a viable option for you?

  3. Maria (Trilingual Mama)

    My understanding is that the family has an OPOL system in place to teach both the minority and majority languages and so the child should already be getting significant input in Spanish.
    In my response, I initially asked about the quality and quantity of the language input of each language respectively and I agree that other sources of native Spanish input should be sought out for the child. However, I still believe that the babysitter would be an added benefit. I’m a firm believer that even storybooks, nursery rhymes and games (although limited in scope) can be a positive bilingual benefit, especially if the babysitter has a native accent.
    What I understand by passive speaker/bilingual is one who has a knowledge of the language without the fluency. This is the way I grew up. I was fluent as a young girl and later could understand perfectly although I could not speak. However, even though I was passive bilingual in Spanish, I would have been able to read stories or repeat the nursery rhymes if asked of me and with a native accent. In my early 20’s I regained my fluency after spending 18 months in a South American country.

  4. Maria Babin

    Sounds like a bit of a semantics problem, but this would make for an interesting post! I think it’s indeed important to understand the difference between ‘passive speaker’, ‘passive bilingual or understanding’ and ‘receptive bilingual’! Getting technical! Are there any others? 😉

  5. Dani

    Hello!! and thanks for answering my question kindly.
    Maria, to answer your question; yes, we do the OPOL system. I do the Spanish part ( I am a native Spanish speaker from Peru) and my husband does the English part since it is his native language. However, when my husband sees my son and I interacting, he also uses Spanish :). My husband understands basic Spanish but we cannot hold a long conversation. I would say my son gets around 30-35 hr Spanish exposure a week. I would include here of interactions with me, reading, singing, twice a month Spanish playgroup, church attendance, friends visiting, Skype with my family.

  6. Dani

    I like the receptive bilingual term too but It seems they are different. I remember reading a definition for that term and another one for the passive speaker concept. Although, I do not remember much about it.

    Well, going back to the babysitter situation; after the interview and trial we did with her, we decided she was not the right match for our kid. Meanwhile, Grandmom (Spanish speaker native) will be watching our son for a couple of months until we find a nanny. Yay for it!!

  7. Andrew James

    This sounds like the situation which often happens in Wales, where many more people understand Welsh than actually speak it. They respond to Welsh-speakers in English. Bilingualism doesn’t mean that all four skills are equal in both languages, but that there is a reasonable competency in receptive and productive skills. In my view, we place too much emphasis on just one of the four skills, speaking, and get worried when children respond in their preferred ‘tongue’. If they can process messages through reading, listening and especially writing, they may be just as competent as a fluent ‘speaker’.

  8. Lisa

    I appreciate this comment from Andrew James, since my son never answers me in my (minority) language, yet understands everything I say, is a decent writer, and reads books in his minority language as easily as in his majority language!


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