Do you understand your parents’ language, but can’t speak it?

Understand your parents' language but can't speak it?

So, you have a native understanding of your family’s language but are unable to respond? It’s more common than you would think among first-generation immigrants, and it even has a name: receptive bilingualism.

While you might have been introduced to your parents’ native language when you were younger, it’s possible that speaking wasn’t encouraged. A good example is when parents speak to their child in their native language and the child responds in English.

One of the reasons is that first-generation immigrant children want to be accepted by their peers. They may not realise the significance of learning a second language, especially if their parents understand them anyway. Later in life, they may give it a shot, only to discover that mastering the language involves jumping through a slew of grammatical hoops. Many people simply give up after a while.

If this happened to you, don’t feel bad: it’s completely normal, particularly if you spend the majority of your day in an English-speaking setting. The good news is that it’s never too late to overcome ‘receptive bilingualism’.

From ‘receptive bilingualism’ to ‘productive bilingualism’

It takes patience, grit, and hard work to learn another language. However, as a receptive bilingual, you’ve already done half the work – you understand the language. Now, you just need to revive your roots, and here are some ways to motivate yourself.

Understand your goal: First of all, why do you want to learn the language? Is this because you plan to visit your ancestral homeland? Or maybe, you’d like to better communicate with distant family members?

Find your support team: Is there a language class or a local community you can join? Or do you have friends and family with whom you can talk? They will help you stay on track.

Connect with the culture: As we wrote here, a language is much more than a medium of communication – it’s the expression of a culture. And nothing beats cultural immersion for learning your native language (or any language, for that matter). Songs, books and movies can help you understand the language as real people speak it.

Don’t be too harsh on yourself: Learning a language means making mistakes, so don’t be afraid to make some along the way. Each error may be used to identify and build on aspects of the language.