Receptive Bilingualism: Triumph Over the Challenges

Learn all about receptive bilingualism, what causes it, and how to deal with it.

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By Barney Meekin · October 13, 2023 · 8 minute read

Under certain circumstances, you can learn a language to a native level but not be able to communicate in it. This is called receptive bilingualism. It might sound unusual to many of you. But this occurs because of complex social factors. For many people, it isn’t a big issue. But for people who want to be able to communicate in all their native languages, it’s a big challenge. Communication skills got left behind and need to catch up.

In this article, you’ll learn all about receptive bilingualism, the people it affects, its causes, and tips to bring your communication skills up to speed.

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What is receptive bilingualism?

Receptive bilingualism is when a person has a native understanding of a language but struggles to produce the language and communicate. Receptive bilinguals can understand everything they hear or read. But when it comes to speaking or writing, it’s a challenge.

This is often the case for people who come from multilingual homes. For example, let’s imagine Daniel is 22 and from the USA. His father speaks Spanish at home. His mother speaks English. He was born in the USA and all of his education was in English. He can understand both languages natively. But he felt nervous speaking Spanish so only ever responded to his parents in English. Over the years, his English communication skills grew. But his Spanish skills never did. He understands Spanish perfectly but only communicates in English.

Receptive bilingualism can also be a problem for expatriates or foreign-born individuals and, to a lesser extent, second language learners. All of these people got enough input in the language to gain a native-level understanding of it. But for whatever reason (more on these later) they aren’t able to communicate.

This doesn't mean they can’t speak the language at all. It means that they can understand more than they can produce. And that they choose to communicate in their other native language.

The causes of receptive bilingualism

The causes of receptive bilingualism are complex. There are educational, societal, and familial reasons. Let’s take a look at some of the big ones.

1. Language dominance

The dominant language at home isn’t the dominant language in their school. Often, one language dominates. That means one language gets left behind. As kids get older, the language of their friends, peers, and teachers will gain more importance. It’s important for them to fit in. Unfortunately, this can be at the expense of one of their native languages.

Let’s think about Daniel again. His father speaks Spanish at home. But English was the main language during his education. And now he’s a recent college graduate working a new job in an English-speaking country. He’s had (and still has) many more opportunities to practice English communication than Spanish.

2. Relocation

People who move to another country want to assimilate in their new homes. For those relocating to an English-speaking country, one of the best ways to fit in and get to know their new neighbors is by learning English. If they’re adults, they can learn English and keep their native language. But it might take more effort when they’re young. They haven’t had as long with their native language as their parents. They see their parents trying to fit in and use English as much as possible.

3. Second-language learning

People spend too much time studying a language and not enough time practicing it. This is a common issue for second language learners and can lead to receptive bilingualism. Admittedly, it isn't as common an issue. It’s much more complicated for children from multilingual backgrounds. But it still happens.

Receptive bilingualism can occur because of imbalances in language learning. With so much online content available, it’s easy to consume content in a new language. There are countless TV shows, podcasts, and books out there. But opportunities to practice producing the language are harder to come by.

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Tips for handling receptive bilingualism

One good thing about having receptive bilingualism is that you don’t need to study hard anymore. You’ve got all the background knowledge you need. Now it’s time to practice your communication skills.

Here are some tips to help your communication skills catch up:

1. Set goals

It’s important to know why you want to become fully bilingual in that language. Is it because you want to reconnect with your heritage? Because you have family members who only speak that language? Or are you learning a second language to make a career switch?

When you know that, you can set some goals. Your goals need to be realistic and specific. For example, let’s say your goal is to talk with your grandma in her native language next Christmas. This is both specific and realistic. Setting goals like this is great for motivating yourself.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Don’t worry about mistakes in grammar and pronunciation. When you worry about this and stress about looking silly, your confidence is hit. You already have the knowledge to be a good communicator. Confidence is one of the things that might be standing in your way. It’s important to protect your confidence.

So don’t sweat the small stuff. It isn’t important. Be confident and the communication skills will follow.

3. Embrace mistakes

It’s important to have a growth mindset. You may have receptive bilingualism at the moment. But that isn’t set in stone. With a growth mindset, you understand that through hard work, a solid process, and embracing challenges you’ll master communicating.

People with a growth mindset understand that failure is part of the learning process. Only by reflecting on failures can you really learn. So don’t shy away from the challenge ahead of you. Don’t fear failure. It won’t be easy but you’ve got this.

4. Find a community

The last few tips have been around the right mindset for handling your receptive bilingualism. The next few are more practical. And the first one is a biggie.

Find a community. A community of people you feel comfortable practicing with. It doesn't matter if they’re native speakers or language learners. All that matters is that you have people to meaningfully interact with. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have family members who speak that language, if you do take every chance you have to be around them.

If you don’t, no problem — you can find groups in your local community. Or you can look online. Busuu has a community of millions of language learners and native speakers so you’re sure to find some people to talk to there.

5. Interact, interact, interact

Alright, here it is. The main event. One of the reasons for receptive bilingualism is a lack of interaction. Well, it’s time to fix that. You need to interact — as much as possible. Take every chance you have to practice speaking the language. There’s no magic bullet. You need to spend hours and hours practising. That’s why first finding a community is so huge.

When you’ve got a circle of people you’re comfortable talking to, talk, talk, and talk some more. Luckily, talking is fun.

6. Immerse yourself

Last but not least — immerse yourself in the language. Consume all the content you can find: books, movies, podcasts, music, whatever. Find ways to fill your day with the language. Think about your hobbies and how you can do them in the language. For example, take cooking lessons in the language. Or join a yoga class in the language. Or play video games in the language (I think you get the picture now). Whatever you can do in the language you struggle communicating in, do it.

Your communication skills can improve

Receptive bilingualism is a unique issue that doesn’t affect many people. But if it does affect you, all is not lost. By following the tips in this article you can help your communication skills catch up to your receptive skills. You already have a deep understanding of the language. Now it’s time to practise and refine your production skills. Interact with as many people ‌as possible and you’ll be speaking multiple languages with ease before you know it.

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Busuu has a community of millions for you to interact with. You can practice with native speakers, complete free online courses, and learn in your own way, on your own schedule.