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Three things to do TODAY if you have a receptive bilingual child

When we decided to raise our girls to be bilingual, I thought it would be super easy. After all, I’ve been bilingual (trilingual actually) my whole life and well, it’s been easy!

Boy was I wrong! Not only did I underestimate how complex it would be, I also was not familiar with a number of linguistics terminologies regularly used in the language world. One of these terms was “receptive bilingual”. What is that I asked myself? A few google searches later and I learned that in the academic literature of linguistics, receptive bilingualism (also known as passive bilingualism) is the ability to understand two or more languages, but only being able to use one of them actively.

A receptive bilingual understands two or more languages but can only express himself in one language.

This happens a lot in families where maybe only one of the parents speaks the language, or when there are not that many people in the community speaking the minority language, so the exposure to the language is limited. Whatever the reason, the child can understand the language but is unable to use it actively.

This was the case of our family not too long ago. Last year, my two daughters were 4 and 2, and could understand Spanish perfectly, but when it came to answering in Spanish, they struggled. They still do.

So here are some changes we did in our household to try to encourage our girls to go from receptive bilinguals, to active bilinguals.

More Spanish input: This was key. When your child is only getting vocabulary from one source (you for example), the exposure is quite limited. Think about it this way: on a regular day when you are at work and your child is at school, the number of hours you interact with them is quite small. If on top of that you only spend half that time speaking in the target language, then the total minutes a day they heard the target language is quite limited. What to do? For our family, it meant looking for new Spanish input. We enrolled our eldest daughter into Spanish class on Saturday (giving her 3 full hours of Spanish extra) and changed all TV shows to just Spanish.

Repeating answers in Spanish:

Whenever my daughters answer in English, I repeat the answer in Spanish and encourage them to repeat it. They might not be able to say the full sentence, so even just repeating a few words is good.

It's important to remember that your child might not be answering in Spanish because they don't have the vocabulary to do so. It takes a lot of practice to develop strong vocabulary; by repeating their answer in Spanish, you are providing them with new words.

Creating opportunities to speak in Spanish:

When your child is in direct need or want of something, they will make the extra effort and say it in Spanish. I realized this when we were in Mexico and my daughter really wanted a balloon - she asked for it in Spanish! Create moments and opportunities for your child to practice their language. This can be done through board games or stories.

Bonus tip:

Always praise! No matter how terrible you think they said the word or sentence, encourage them! Praise them! Tell them how amazing they are. Children are seeking validation and by praising them they will be encouraged to so more often.

Remember, becoming an active bilingual takes time and effort, but with consistent practice and dedication, you can improve your skills and become fluent in the language.

Which of these tips will you try at home? Let me know in the comments!


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