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Receptive bilingual children: Language skills development of children who understand but don’t speak their heritage language

Hello, dear parents! Today, we’re delving into a fascinating aspect of language development, particularly among children who understand but don’t actively speak their heritage language. These kids, known as receptive bilinguals, face unique challenges, including a limited vocabulary and less robust grammar skills.

Imagine your child understands conversations at home but struggles to join in. This scenario is common among receptive bilinguals, who often have a firm grasp of “kitchen language”—the words for family members, daily activities, food, and household items. However, step outside these familiar topics, and they might find themselves at a loss for words.

Why does this happen? Even when they know certain words, using them can be tricky. Picture a child who can point out an apple when asked in their heritage language but stumbles when asked to name it just moments later. This illustrates the difference between active vocabulary (words we use) and passive vocabulary (words we understand but don’t use). Typically, a person’s passive vocabulary is larger than their active vocabulary, but this gap widens in those less frequently using a language, making it harder for receptive bilinguals to find their words when they want to use them for meaningful communication.

The root of this challenge lies in the frequency of language use. Psycholinguistics introduces us to the Word Frequency Effect, where the more often a word is encountered, the easier it becomes to recall. Conversely, words in a seldom-spoken language behave like rare words, taking longer to come to mind. Another phenomenon, the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect, describes knowing a word but being unable to say it, a situation all too familiar for receptive bilinguals. This can lead to a cycle where the less the heritage language is spoken, the more its words “sink” in memory, making them even harder to recall and thus used even less—a true vicious circle.

So, what can we do to support our receptive bilingual children? The answer is teaching and encouraging them to use new words actively. While there’s no one-size-fits-all method for teaching heritage languages, a blend of second language teaching strategies and traditional language teaching methods offers a promising approach.

Our goal in this post is not to prescribe specific methods but to highlight the importance of understanding these challenges when selecting the best approach for your child. Together, we can help our children not only understand but also actively participate in the rich tapestry of their heritage languages.

Supporting receptive bilingual children in developing their language skills, particularly at home, is a nurturing journey that requires patience, understanding, and creativity. These children often understand a language (usually their heritage language) but speak another language (often the dominant language of the country they live in). Here are some strategies to help them bridge the gap between understanding and speaking, turning passive vocabulary into active use.


  1. Create a Language-rich Environment

Dedicate time for the heritage language: Set aside specific times during the day or week dedicated solely to using the heritage language. This could be during meals, storytime, or playtime.

Label household items: Use labels in the heritage language on everyday objects around the house. This visual aid reinforces word-object associations.

Use multimedia resources: Incorporate music, movies, and books in the heritage language into your child’s daily routine. Choose content that matches their interests to keep them engaged.

  1. Engage in Meaningful Conversations

Talk about daily activities: Use the heritage language to discuss routine activities, ask questions, and explain things. The goal is to make the language a part of everyday life, not just a subject to be learned.

Share stories and anecdotes: Narrate stories or share family anecdotes in the heritage language. Encourage your child to ask questions and express their thoughts and feelings in response.

  1. Play and Learn

Language games: Play games that involve language use, such as “I Spy,” memory games with vocabulary cards, or simple board games that require verbal interaction.

Interactive language apps: Utilize educational apps designed to teach languages in a fun and interactive way. Look for apps that focus on vocabulary building and basic sentence formation.

  1. Encourage Social Interaction

Language immersion camps: Camps and classes offer children an amazing opportunity to socialize with other children in their heritage language in a controlled environment that, when done the right way and following research-based immersion methodologies, can help motivate children to use their heritage language in social settings. Learn more about our language immersion camps here.

Heritage language playdates: Arrange playdates with children who speak the heritage language. Social interaction in a casual setting can motivate children to use the language actively.

Community involvement: Participate in community events or cultural programs where the heritage language is spoken. Feeling part of a larger community can boost a child’s interest in the language.

  1. Positive Reinforcement

Celebrate efforts: Acknowledge and praise your child’s efforts to use the heritage language, regardless of accuracy. Positive reinforcement encourages further attempts and builds confidence.

Set realistic goals: Establish achievable language goals to keep your child motivated. Celebrate milestones, such as learning new words or successfully engaging in a short conversation.

  1. Reading and Writing

Bilingual books: Invest in bilingual books that offer text in both the heritage language and the dominant language. Reading together can improve vocabulary and comprehension.

Writing practice: Encourage writing in the heritage language through fun activities, such as writing letters to family members, creating simple stories, or keeping a journal.

  1. Be a Role Model

Use the language yourself: Demonstrate your own use of the heritage language in various contexts. Children are more likely to use the language if they see it being used regularly and confidently by their parents.

  1. Seek Professional Support

Language Classes: Consider enrolling your child in language classes specifically designed for children learning their heritage language. This can provide structured learning and opportunities to practice with peers. Learn more about our language classes here.

Remember, every child’s language journey is unique. Patience and persistence are key. By incorporating the heritage language into daily life, providing ample opportunities for its use, and creating a supportive and encouraging environment, you can help your receptive bilingual child develop a deeper connection to their heritage language, enriching their cultural identity and linguistic abilities.

Owner at Language Kids World | + posts

Founder and Director of Education at Language Kids.
M. Ed.

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