4 Reasons Why Your Child Is Passive Bilingual

Have you ever met a family where parents speak to a child their heritage language but a child responds back in the community one? Or maybe this is the case in your multilingual family?

It certainly could be frustrating: you were always speaking the target language with your child and maybe he/she even spoke it to you back as a little kid but eventually started to use more majority language with you and finally completely switched to it.

But be positive, your child is still bilingual with the level of bilingualism called passive or receptive, when she accumulates the language enough to understand it but chooses not to use it for various reasons.

What are these reasons and are there any solutions if you would like your child to be an active bilingual?

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I asked this question to the MKB community of multilingual researches, bloggers, parents and language activists and received great answers that could help you determine the reasons of passive bilingualism within your family and how to find ways to turn it into active one.

 Reason#1: Lack of Real Need For a Language

The NEED to speak the language is the essential ground for its developing.

Adults who acquire a second language almost all do it because of a perceived need. Whether it’s travel, business, or even romance (learning a partner’s language), there’s a concrete motivation.

A very few adults learn languages for the fun of it, or as a purely academic discipline, but in nearly all cases there’s a need. So why should we expect children to work any differently?

Many of my peers agree that creating a real need is vital for a language development and they give great suggestion on how to create one:

Ute Limacher-Riebold of ExpatSinceBirth:

“Children use the easiest strategy when it comes to languages. When they see that you understand and talk other languages that are more important at the moment (social environment, school, and friends) they will prefer those dominant languages. If the language you want them to use becomes more valuable, due to other people talking it, situations of full immersion or not sharing other languages with people they need to interact with, they’ll try to talk the language.”

Yzabeau On of Expat-Lang:

“The usefulness of the language is very important. A child will use a language if it is useful to him or her. I have teenager boys and they love interacting in the various languages they know. They play with them and I really enjoy that. Showing the usefulness of the languages, or what some people would call the need for them is what makes them enjoy those languages so much. Motivation is one thing, but if you do not see the need, or the usefulness, I feel it is not enough”

Annabelle Humanes of The Piri-Piri Lexicon:

“Create a need. To me, this is vital. There are many ways to do this: other kids speaking that language, full immersion, etc.”


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Cousins are perfect to practice heritage language.

Rita Rosenback of Multilingual Parenting:

  “The older the children are the more important it is to find something that creates a real need for them to use the language. Don’t compel, but make it compelling for them .”

Maria Babin of Trilingual Mama:

“I’d definitely agree with those who say you must create a real need if you would like your child to actively use your heritage language. This can be done through playgroups with others who speak the same heritage language, watching movies in the heritage language, as well as trips to the heritage country. Pen-pals and Skype work well too to create a need to communicate in that language. And of course books, lots of books, in the heritage language! Picture books when they’re little and chapter books as they grow. Books in subjects they are naturally interested in…”

A very good way to create a real need is to regularly connect your children with people who do not speak your kids’ majority language:

Becky Mladic Morales of KidWorldCitizen:

 “This is precisely my kids!!!!! If my kids know that they person does not speak English, all of a sudden they are fluent in Spanish! ha:)”

Amanda Ponzio Mouttaki of Marocmama:

 “One thing that we do is leave them with family that only speak one of the minority languages. This way they have no choice but to use it. For example we went to Finland for a week and the kids only spoke Arabic for that week. Wouldn’t you know their vocabulary had expanded in a big way in just that short time! We also try to get them to do things that interest them in the minority language like taking karate lessons from a teacher who speaks language 2 or 3 or playing games in a minority language.”


Reason # 2: Low Fluency and Vocabulary

As you can see now creating a real need is the fastest way to get to your bilingual destination. But what if you don’t live in the diverse community and meeting a stranger who speaks your language is almost equals meeting a family member?  (I know this feeling – I’ve been knocking on the shower door in the public pool because I’ve heard Russian speech behind it). In this case organizing play dates and regular interaction with your target language speakers is a pain, but there are still ways to keep up with your heritage language.

As Amanda Hsiung Blodgett of Miss Panda Chinese defined it:

“Vocabulary is a key building block for learning a language for all age groups. If a child does not have sufficient words/expressions to use in the target language s/he would very likely to switch to the community language or his/her most fluent language to communicate with us.  When my kids were younger (< 5 years old) I would interpret what they said to me in English into Mandarin Chinese. If they said it again in English I would repeat the same context again in Mandarin. Now my children are older (ages 8.10) and what I do the most is to expand their vocabulary in target language so they have sufficient words/phrases they need to tell me about what they have learned in science class, in social studies class, and other subjects they have at school. Sometimes I have to look up specific terms in Chinese for them but it helps them to use the target language as much as they can.”

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Word by word build your child’s vocabulary.

Here are some practical suggestions on how you can be improving children’s fluency on a daily basis:

Galina Nikitina of Raising A Trilingual Child:

“In order to keep a child interested in speaking / using minority language, his/her life in that language needs to be as rich and eventful as it is in the community language. The key is to keep developing child’s minority language in all areas of knowledge, evenly enriching his imaginational world in all of the languages.”

Aimee Schmitt Thompson of Raising World Citizens:

“My sons are native English speakers, but go to a French immersion school. On the playground or after school, they tend to speak English with their friends. To help keep up their French, we’ve tried to set up play dates with native French-speaking friends. We also try to attend French storylines or movie viewings that allow for discussion and interaction with the teachers and other participants. We’re also always on the lookout for any games, websites or apps that let them build their language skills.”

Ayesha Siddiqua of Words N Needles shares her tactics:

“I say, ‘sorry, what is that in *insert language*’. If he ignores and doesn’t listen, I ask his dad to translate.  We have nephews and nieces who do that a lot… that is what our family does.”


Reason #3: Lack of Consistency and Discipline

Every big success is made up of little successes, each building on the previous and compounding over time. Reaching your goals is achieved by the DAILY effort you put into what you do, not by some magic success formula, new miracle product, or new language dvd’s.

Whatever you do to raise your child bilingual – do it consistently. Creating habits helps to automate your interaction with a child so this way there is not even a question on why do we need to speak this language, read the books, practice writing etc.

Adriana Kröller of Changing Plate shared with us:

“My little on is only 10 months right now but I’m taking the same approach my mom used with me…I’m planning I never speaking anything but English to her no matter what she answers me back in. I think if you keep speaking it to them they will never forget it”

Diana Limongi Gabriele of LadydeeLG of gives us very practical advice on how to set up good bilingual habits:

“I actively correct Enzo when he answers me in English… today he said he wanted me to read the book in English… but the book was in Spanish. I mostly read only in Spanish. I try to put his cartoons in Spanish as well. His grandparents only speak in Spanish to him, that helps a lot. I think the best thing is travel, even if it is for a short amount of time.”


Reason #4: Peer Pressure and Lack of Pride

This is often the reason why your talkative bilingual teen all the sudden cuts down on interaction in the heritage language.

Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou of DariaMusic shares a perfect example:

“Wow – this happens all the time in Peru! Kids understand Quechua but don’t want to be caught speaking it. I think that parents and adults can be positive role models using both languages and including the kids in events and activities that encourage racial pride and make it fun. My relatives on the Jemez Pueblo did something different. They saw the kids using less and less “Towa”, the language of the pueblo. So they organized a kids drum group that sung in Towa and it became “super cool” to be part of this travelling group and to speak and sing in Towa. With Native American languages, language is all mixed up in unpleasant racial stereotypes, so I think we struggle a bit harder with this question.”

Anna Watt from Russian Step By Step told us:

“My daughter is 3.5 and we did not get to a point where she would refuse to speak Russian (minority language) but she definitely knows people who speak only Russian (like grandparents) who speak both (some of our local friends) and who only speak English and she will always chooses the language that the person uses to speak to her. Some of our Russian friends speak mostly Russian around her and that’s what she uses while other will mostly use English (although they speak Russian) and she will speak English to them unless asked or prompted to speak Russian. I totally agree that if it is useful and there is consistency she is totally fine speaking Russian. I have heard from a lot of friends that 10-11 is the age where it was getting harder to continue speaking Russian as the children wanted to be more like their peers and not differ from them.”

There is also a lot depends on parents enthusiasm towards the language.

Maria Babin of Trilingual Mama nailed it:

“A lot has to be said about the attitude of the parents towards the language. A little enthusiasm goes a long way as does encouraging all of our children’s efforts with minimal correcting and avoiding criticism”.

What Is Next?

OK, by now you probably realized what the reason is for your child being passive bilingual. I hope you will take steps to improve your language environment and will try most of the above suggestions. But what if your child still remains in a receptive bilingualism zone?

Relax. Enjoy your time with your kid with a peace in your heart that you are doing a lot to keep his/her language alive.

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Raising happy children is our ultimate goal.

All of the mentioned parents and researchers agree that passive bilingualism is a very useful skill and at some point can quickly turn into an active one with the right need. Who knows, maybe just in 8-10 years your son will meet the girl of his dream and will have a lot of motivation to use the language? Or your daughter will travel to the country where all the sudden speaking her second language will be vital?

And for the “dessert”, enjoy this inspiring story from Varya Sanina-Garmroud of Creative World Of Varya:

“ Recently I had a revelation – continue doing what you are doing: speaking, singing, reading to them and watching shows in your heritage language. At some point they will be put in a situation where they will realize how powerful this knowledge is and will naturally find a way to use the language. My mom was here this time for the birth of our 3rd. So my girls had no choice but to speak Russian to her. And I saw at some point my talkative 5 year old just started using more Russian than she ever did before and I heard her say words and phrases I had no clue she knew.”


Olena Centeno Avatar Small

Olena Centeno is a Ukrainian who lives in USA, a happy mom of three wonderful kids ages 2, 6 and 10 and a wife to the great man. She speaks three languages herself and is raising her kids to be multilingual in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish. She founded Bilingual Kids Rock where she helps families on their bilingual journey. She also enjoys photography and video making as a way to preserve precious moments of life. You can connect with her at http://bilingualkidsrock.com/

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16 thoughts on “4 Reasons Why Your Child Is Passive Bilingual”

  1. Thank you so much, dear participants, for your great advice on this topic. I hope it will help many families to improve their bilingual experience!

  2. What a wonderful, thorough article. I completely agree with your advice about remaining relaxed too – the most important thing is that the knowledge is there. As you say, some day it may turn active. We saw this with my husband’s little brother, who was brought up in a Portuguese-speaking home in Britain. For his entire life he’d refused to speak Portuguese, until he suddenly decided to take a trip to Brazil by himself at the age of 18. He now not only understands Portuguese perfectly, he also speaks it very well (and is happy to do so!). So you never know.

    1. What a wonderful and inspiring story! It is real live example of how useful passive bilingualism is. You said it right – you never know. Thank you so much for sharing, Eline.

  3. Hi. I found this article very helpful. I am english living in France with my french partner. We both speak both langages. My daughter will turn 4 next week and has just started school two weeks ago. She speaks very little english and no french. I never worried before about her being behind thé other kids on thé talking front as she is so bright and logical and can do so much that other kids her âge can’t. And she went to her first two weeks of school without tears or seeming to be worried. But today she told me that she didn’t want to go to school, that she has no friends and that everyone is horrible. Now I am worried that language is becoming a problem. I have always spoken to her in english and my mother also. My partner works long hours and finds it easier to speak to her in english. Thought she does seem to understand french without a problem.

    1. Rebecca, thank you so much for your feedback. We actually had the same story with my son. He went to preschool with almost zero English, because we lived in Ukraine and he spoke and understood Ukrainian and Russian. He was 3.5 at that time. I was really grateful to the teacher who helped him a lot for the first several month. She was telling to the class all good things about Ukraine and even learned several phrases in Russian. That made my son feel proud and confident and showed his uniqueness to other kids. He picked up on English in app. 6-8 months and had no problem communicating with children. My husband also was working crazy hours (he still does:), but when he was around our son, he would always get him exited to go to school and learn something new. I would definitely talk to the teacher to find out what exactly going on, rule out other (non language related) reasons of the situation and ask her for help. As you said, your daughter is smart and bright and I am very positive she will catch up on her French soon.

  4. My wife and I really enjoyed this article. We’re raising our children bilingual with Irish in the US. It’s a big fear I have that my children will decide that such a rare language will be a waste of time and stop speaking it. This article got me thinking about the need to use music more often. We play the Irish drum and now we’re learning the mandolin so we can all sing together in Irish.

    1. It is so great! I am sure that playing these unique cultural instruments not only will help with language but also will create strong bond in the family. Good luck!

  5. What a great treasure of advice from parents all over the world, in the same situation of trying to raise bilingual kids:). Love it!

  6. A wonderful article! Living in midcoast Maine, the opportunities for kiddos with parents with language other than English to interact with that language outside of the home is rare. I’ve had many students over the years who wanted nothing more than to integrate into society and not stand out from their peers. It is a sad commentary that kiddos feel being bilingual makes them different in an undesirable manner. Interestingly, the families who most celebrate that heritage at home have kiddos who are also most proud in public. Children of a parent(s) who find it challenging to find the balance between maintaining their heritage and being part of American society seem to more often reject that heritage. ~Julie, Mundo de Pepita

    1. This is a great observation, Julie. Parents should strongly believe in their influence on children vs peer influence and, as you said, celebrate their heritage. Thank you so much for your comment!

  7. What a great article! Thanks so much. I am an English speaking South African, married to a German. When our daughter was born we were living in South Africa, I asked my husband (and had to remind him often) to only speak German to her. We had very little contact with other German speaking people at the time so she almost always heard English. We did get some German books and DVD’s though. We came to Germany on holiday every year with her and although she never spoke German she did understand it. Even when my husband spoke German to her she only ever answered in English. Last year (June 2013 – when our daughter was 3.5 years old) we moved to Germany to live. She started going to German kindergarten in September 2013. When we moved here it was like a switch was flicked in her. Now she speaks perfect German (for her age – now 5) and switches perfectly between English an German, she will have a conversation with my husband an I and switch back and forth between the two languages. She only speaks English to me and I to her (if I do speak German to her she says “Mommy, speak English!”). We have lots of English books and DVD’s and my family do not speak German. Thank goodness for Skype we stay in contact and speak often. It is absolutely remarkable how fast kids learn another language!

  8. Pingback: Do you speak Chinese at home? Read this. | Mandarin Immersion Parents Council

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