Receptive bilingualism – understanding but not speaking a language

by | Mar 23, 2016 | Bilingualism, Challenges, How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Language and bilingualism, Practical advice | 18 comments

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  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!

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18 Comments

  1. Avatar

    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.

    Linda

    Reply
    • Avatar

      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.

      Reply
    • Avatar

      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,
      Rita

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Linda,

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

      Kind regards,
      Rita

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    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!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      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
      Rita

      Reply
      • Avatar

        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!

        Bests,
        Warmice

        Reply
        • Avatar

          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
          Rita

          Reply
        • Avatar

          Dear Warmice,

          I’m having the similar issue with my 6 years old daughter. We speak 2 languages at home and she could understand both languages but struggles to speak. I am open for suggestions on how to make thing work with my daughter. Please help as I’m struggling along with her as well.

          Regards
          Mala

          Reply
  3. Avatar

    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Arya,
      thank you for your message, which of some reason has not come to my attention until now. Very late, I am so sorry!
      First of all, you are definitely not too late! There are people who have started learning a new language as pensioners and have managed to become fluent.
      The best way to become more fluent in speaking Thai is to take every opportunity to use it with your Thai-speaking family. The more you speak, the better you become at it. Don’t worry about making mistakes and ask for help when you don’t remember how to say something. The Thai you knew as a small child is still in your brains, it is just deep down and it will take some practice to get up to speed again.
      Do you have access to Thai or Hindi TV programmes or films? (you can always use YouTube to find some as well) Watch them and when possible, stop them in-between and repeat what the actors say to get used to expressing yourself in Thai and Hindi.
      As you are so interested in learning, I am sure you will succeed!
      Good luck!
      Rita

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Hello! I’m a thirteen-yo girl. My family speaks English, my stepmom speaks Spanish, and I’m picking up on Korean and Chinese. I’m trying to focus on my Spanish, since I used to fluent as a small child. I can understand very well, but I can’t speak fluently. I’m able to say basic sentences and I speak Spanish with my stepmom often, but whenever I try to learn more complicated words and phrases, it’s like my mind just refuses. Do you have any tips on how to relearn?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Kaitlynn
      Well done for deciding to regain your Spanish-speaking skills and learning Korean and Chinese as well – I am impressed!
      It is great that you have the opportunity to practice your Spanish with your stepmom. Keep on doing this and don’t be shy to attempt more complicated sentences. It really does not matter if you make a mistake and you can always ask her for help when you need it.
      Since you have been fluent as a child, you have a lot of Spanish knowledge in your brain and this is of great help. Your Spanish vocabulary may not have included more complicated words, so these are all new to you. This may make it feel like your “mind just refuses”. This is however not true. It may feel a bit more difficult, but in no way does it mean that you can’t expand your vocabulary and ability to use longer sentences.
      Reading is a great way of learning new words and phrases, so borrow some Spanish books to read. Keep a notebook next to you and write down new words and phrases and their meanings. Then try to think of new sentences where you could use them. If you don’t have access to books in Spanish, you can find a lot of material on the net.
      Watching TV and films is also a good way to pick up new vocabulary. Stop the program and repeat to yourself what you heard, then try to use what you learnt in a discussion.
      Best of luck to you, I am sure you can do it!
      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    Hello, I am a 13 year-old Brazilian girl. My parents are both from Brazil and my step-dad is American, but comes from a Mexican family. I spoke Brazilian Portuguese for my whole life and started learning English at 9 years-old in school, after I moved to the United States. At home I speak Portuguese with my mom (She is not fluent in English), and majority of the time my step-dad speaks to me in Spanish (Which I understand clearly, but for some reason, can’t speak back). It’s the same for my half-brother, he is in kindergarten and understands my parents when they speak in Portuguese and/or Spanish, but can only respond in English. I thought about starting Spanish classes at school, but I’m also focused in French and German, and I really don’t want to change my French class for one that I know I’ll be able to understand. I can also speak Italian (Learned it in 6 months), so I was really confused as to why I had so much trouble speaking Spanish. I’m in between just taking lessons at school (To learn how to write and speak, as I already know how to read and write) or if I should back away from Spanish, seeing that I’m having a hard time, and take my time to learn more idioms like German and French, which I’m already focusing on.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      I made a writing mistake, but basically, I want to learn how to write and speak because I already know how to read and understand.

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Isabel,
      you clearly have a talent for languages, fantastic!
      It is sometimes difficult to get past the first hurdle of answering in a language, even though you feel that you know it. It is of course up to you which languages you want to focus on, but I have the feeling that it would not take much for you to gain the confidence to say something in Spanish, and subsequently learn to write it, too.
      Why not try something like Duolingo (free online language learning site) where you can start at your own pace and practice expressing yourself in Spanish. Then you could ask your step-father to support you by leading simple discussions. To learn to speak, it is vital that you find opportunities to practice.
      Good luck!
      Rita

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    Hi, Rita. I’m interested in this “passive bilingualism” topic and would like to penetrate deeper into its mechanism. Could you please recommend more books for me to read?

    You may heard of the city Shanghai in China. I’m a local Shanghainese and speak both Shanghai dialect and mandarin, but nowadays the number of local kids and youths who can speak Shanghai dialect is decreasing sharply. I would like to do something to save Shanghai dialect. I remember when I was a kid, I could speak better Shanghai dialect. After going to school, I started to speak mandarin more frequently. Thanks to my parents who insist that I should speak Shanghai dialect to them, now I become the youth speaking both language and I don’t think I would “forget” Shanghai dialect anymore. But that is not the case of other Shanghai kids, since their parents and grandparents will just speak mandarin to them for some reasons… I really want to help save our dialect.

    By the way, I think the theory may also be applied in learning English. I think a lot of English learners (including me) can understand English effortlessly, yet we still find it hard to generate English. We find it not that easy to speak and write appropriate English.

    Why it happen? Thank you for you answer!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Zoey,
      I agree, perceptive bilingualism is such an interesting topic!
      I love you passion for the Shanghai dialect. I feel the same about my Finland-Swedish dialect which I continue to speak although I have not lived in my home village for several decades.
      I would recommend that you start by reading The Listening Bilingual: Speech Perception, Comprehension, and Bilingualism by François Grosjean and Krista Byers-Heinlein In there you will also find references to further books to continue your studies.
      When it comes to understanding but not speaking a language, it first and foremost comes down to lack of practice and need to use the language. If you hear and listen to a language a lot, you will learn to understand it. However, to be able to express yourself, you need the opportunity to practice your speaking, preferably with a fluent speaker of the language.
      Good luck!

      Reply

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