Part 1 – Passive bilinguals and the home language

Author: Maria Potvin

Photo by Timur Weber on

How often have we heard a friend, a teacher or a family member make a similar statement, agonising over the fact that our child is completely confused, overwhelmed and will never start speaking the language we so fondly want them to? How often have we, as parents, blamed ourselves that we are not doing enough, worried that we are doing something wrong or puzzled over what else we can do to speed up the process? How often have we witnessed our child respond to an outraged relative in the ‘wrong’ language, or simply walk away leaving them in utter dismay?

If this sounds familiar, you probably have a passive bilingual on your hands! Passive, or receptive, bilingualism occurs when someone has had enough exposure to a language that they can understand it reasonably well (everything they hear or read), but cannot respond in it or are very reluctant to do so unless it is absolutely necessary. Imagine the following situation – your home languages are English and Spanish, and your son, Jake, is a passive bilingual in Spanish. He understands when you talk to him but would exclusively respond in English. Now imagine that abuela is visiting and has brought treats that Jake really wants. The problem is, however, that abuelita does not speak a word of English and he knows perfectly well that he wouldn’t get anything unless he makes an effort and asks for the treats in Spanish. Even if it might appear so, this behaviour has nothing to do with laziness or stubbornness but rather with practicality and, let’s be honest, resourcefulness. Jake has learned to navigate his language environment to his advantage and knows that he will not get any sweets unless he makes an effort to speak Spanish.

When performing cognitive tasks, our brain tries to preserve energy and use as little as possible. Making an effort to speak Spanish in this case would be more strenuous but if the means justify the end (the motivation is meaningful), a child will go the extra mile and try their best to express themselves.

In the first part of this topic, we will look at how passive bilingualism relates to the home language/s, explore three aspects that influence the language learning process and offer some practical solutions to enhance it.

  1. Emotions

Emotions play an important part in language development and often directly affect our language choices and preferences. Familial connections influence the language dynamic and fluency in the home language(s) might enrich the parent-child relationship. In some cases, the more developed language might be the one of the parent the child spends more time with and/or feels more attached to. Therefore, having undivided parent-child time to read books in the passive language or engage in other activities and talk about them is important for development of language skills and building confidence in that language, while also strengthening the parent-child relationship.

  • Input

The amount, variety and quality of input also play a vital role in building language skills. There is no blueprint that shows us exactly what amount of input daily is needed but we know from research that person-to-person interaction is crucial for language development. A child needs to hear enough of a language in order to build vocabulary, understand the intricacies of that language and learn how to express themselves. However, if they feel inadequate and insecure about their abilities in that language, they might simply refuse to use it.

  • Motivation

The motivation to speak a language will give the passive bilingual the push they need to start shifting from receptive to active bilingualism. Staying flexible regarding expectations and timelines as well as discussing the ‘Why’ as a family plays an integral part in this process. Providing reasons why we want our child to speak our language is fundamental to motivating them, especially as they grow older and are starkly influenced by friends and the media. For example, one way to increase exposure to Spanish for Jake might be to have dinner in Spanish as a family three times a week, while both Mum and Jake try to speak that language because it is Dad’s language and it is important to him. In addition, abuela might read a book to Jake over video chat or play a memory game online, for instance, thus increasing not only the language input and motivation but also potentially strengthening their relationship and emotional connection.

            Providing varying input and reasons why it is important for your child to learn to speak your language are strategies can support the shift from passive to active bilingualism. Do not be discouraged though if your child keeps refusing to respond to you in the language you would like them to. Instead, keep addressing them in that language and rest assured that by doing this you are helping them build knowledge. They will be able to tap into this knowledge when they are ready!

In my next blog post, I will explore passive bilingualism in the school language and what we can do to support our child. So, watch out for Part 2!