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.
[UPDATE: I definitely agree with Prof. Grosjean – he pointed out to me that the use of the word ‘passive’ is misleading in the phrase. The process of understanding a language is a highly active brain process, so the term ‘receptive bilingual’ would be a bit better. But as the phrase ‘passive bilingual’ has established itself, I will continue using it for now.]
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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