“I can understand it, I just can’t speak it” has become my go-to line whenever a family member asks why I can’t speak my native tongue. Similar to many other first-generation immigrants living in predominantly English-speaking countries, the side effect of my desire to fit in with my friends and classmates has been the loss of my ability to communicate in my native language. Although I can fully comprehend when someone speaks it to me, I am unable to speak it myself. It wasn’t until recently that I came across a term that describes this situation: receptive bilingualism.
Receptive bilingualism occurs when a person has enough exposure to a language to have a native understanding of it, but, for one reason or another, is unable to communicate in it. This language is often the language of the person’s parents and was taught to them when they were young, but speaking in it was not emphasized. It’s common to see a parent talking to their child in their native tongue and see the child responding in English.
One common misconception of receptive bilingualism is that the person cannot speak the language at all. People who are receptive bilingual can speak the language, but often run into trouble with the grammar. Verb tenses puzzle them, and they often cannot think of the appropriate tense while speaking. They may also find it difficult to speak a whole sentence because they can’t connect words. After many failed attempts to speak, they may give up on the language completely and resort back to monolingualism.
Attending school is a turning point for children coming from households that speak a language other than the majority language. Some may know English before going to school, while others may not know the language at all. Holding on to their native tongue becomes difficult, especially when a majority of their day is spent in an English-speaking environment.
Children at this age are also too small to understand the value of remaining fluent in their mother tongue. English begins to take over the family language. Dr. Marina Sherkina-Lieber, a professor at Carleton University, describes this situation as subtractive bilingualism. Children start responding to their parents in English and soon lose their ability to speak their mother tongue.
This situation accurately described my life growing up as a first-generation immigrant. Although I understood everything my parents said in Konkani, I couldn’t bring myself to speak the language. Whenever I tried, I mixed up the past tense with the future tense and couldn’t form a complete sentence without thinking about it beforehand.
Assimilation Is the Enemy of Bilingualism
The dream of many first-generation immigrant children is to be accepted by their peers. In their quest to assimilate, they may dismiss aspects of their culture. Soon enough, cultural school lunches will be rejected in favor of chicken nuggets. Just like food, language is an integral part of maintaining culture.
After starting school, kids often stop speaking their mother tongue and may reject it completely to fit in with their new friends. Speaking another language in the grocery store or in front of other friends may cause unwanted attention, setting them apart from the rest of the crowd. Mastery of the heritage language may not seem essential, especially if the child can get by speaking English.
Receptive bilingualism is inadvertently the leading cause of languages dying out. As successive generations of a family become bilingual, they may stop communicating in their native language. A language is less likely to be passed on to the next generation if the parent cannot speak it to their children. Out of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken, linguists predict that nearly half of them face extinction.
But don’t lose hope. Here are four steps you can take to master your native language.
1. Find Your Purpose
Receptive bilingualism starts once a person realizes that they do not need to communicate in a language. Find a reason why you want to speak the language. It may be a simple goal like talking to your family members in the language or traveling to another country. Whatever it may be, establish why you want to become fluent and set a goal for yourself.
2. Find a Supportive Community Where You Can Speak the Language.
The main reason many first-generation immigrants stop speaking their respective language is that they have no one else to speak it to. Create a close circle of friends and family who support your journey toward bilingualism, and speak to them whenever possible.
3. Don’t Be Afraid To Mess Up
Many people give up on a language because they make too many errors while speaking and start to feel embarrassed. After practicing for a while, the grammar will start to come naturally. That is also why step two is important. Make sure you are comfortable feeling vulnerable around your speaking group because you are likely to make a few mistakes in the beginning.
4. Immerse Yourself in the Culture
Listening to songs, watching movies and reading books in the respective language are great ways to observe how the language is spoken in everyday life. Reading in particular may help you understand the grammar. You might even pick up a few slang words to add to your vocabulary.
Although it may seem daunting at first, learning your native language is worth the effort. Not only will you officially be bilingual, but it will connect you to your culture and save your language from the possibility of extinction. As a first-generation immigrant myself, I completely understand the struggle of wanting to blend in and at the same time hold on to your culture, but you do not have to pick one over the other.