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

Passive language skills

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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Categories: Challenges, Family life

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13 replies

  1. 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?

    • 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!

      • 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.

  2. I am so happy I found this blog and with it some hope that my kids will revert their becoming passive Italian into active some day! Now age 10 and 7, they were both born in Italy and we moved to the US when they were 5 and 2 and 1/2. Needless to say, my 7 year old is quickly crossing to the “passive” side to my horror. Now I am afraid she will stop understanding soon. Do I still have time to help them become bilingual again? My main problem is that I find it difficult to stick with Italian, especially when in a hurry. And when I see that she clearly has a great difficulty into answering me in Italian, I don’t know that to do. I will keep trying speaking to them in Italian, and I hope they will become active again. We try to go back to Italy every year for at least a month, and my parents try to visit every year also. Thank you so much! Giusi


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