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Receptive Bilingualism: "I Can Understand It, But I Can't Speak It."

Many of us have a native language we can understand to varying degrees. It may vary from simply recognising when the language is being spoken, to knowing a few phrases here and there, to being fluent. For some people, their fluency is limited only to the understanding of the language. In conversation, they can keep up and may even be able to formulate responses fluently in their head but when the time comes to speak out loud what comes out it is a totally different story.

If you’re Yorùbá, you may be one of the people who could buy a few Bentley trucks if they had a pound for every encounter that saw, "Ṣo gbó Yorùbá?" (Do you understand Yorùbá?) met with, "Mo gbó, mi ò lè sọ ó!" (I can understand but I can’t speak it!) or if you yourself have had to grit your teeth understanding the question but not being able to respond in Yorùbá! Our Yorùbá classes were inspired by seeing just how common this is. If this is you, you’re not alone AND there’s a name for this! It’s called receptive bilingualism!

Ṣo gbó Yorùbá? (Do you understand Yorùbá?)
‘Mo gbó, mi ò lè sọ ó! (I can understand but I can’t speak it!)

Bilingualism is defined as the use of two languages either by an individual or by a group of speakers. A person who knows and uses two languages is therefore referred to as a bilingual. However, it is actually very rare to find people who are able to speak, read, or understand two languages to a fairly similar standard aka balanced bilinguals or equilinquals. More often than not, a bilingual person has a better grasp of one language, and by extension, culture, than of the other. There are a number of different types of bilinguals to reflect this.

A receptive bilingual is someone who is completely fluent in one language and can understand but not speak a second language. Usually that second language is the language of the parent(s). It’s quite a common phenomenon amongst second-generation immigrant communities, who will understand their mother tongue, but respond in English or the language of where they’ve grown up. However, it’s also becoming increasingly common in certain countries where factors such as colonisation have caused people to relegate their languages in favour of the language of who they were colonised by.

There are many reasons people end up becoming receptive bilinguals. For some people it was deliberate, with parents fearing that children would become confused. Sometimes, it was shame. Some felt there was no use to learning a language. It can be due to significant life events like immigrating, moving away from one’s language community, a separation or loss of a loved one just to name a few. As time goes on, if the language is not used or spoken, then it becomes easier to forget and harder to speak.

Language and culture are so inextricably linked that the inability to speak a language becomes much more than communicating with spoken words.

Many people who have another language buried inside of them express a desire to unearth it and start flexing that inactive language muscle. Language and culture are so inextricably linked that the inability to speak a language becomes much more than communicating with spoken words. The names, the peculiarity of certain idioms, the full range of expressing emotion, the music.

Well, we’re here to say it’s never too late to learn. A little and often can go a long way. And if you’re someone who has a good degree of fluency in more than one language, try to be a bit more understanding and sensitive to those that don’t. It’s already hard picking up a new language without having to add being mocked and/or shamed.

For anyone thinking about picking up Yorùbá, please see the range of language classes that we offer here:

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