Why Can I Understand More Spanish Than I Can Speak?
Can you understand more Spanish than you can speak? I hear this often from my students.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Many people around the world can understand a language but not speak it. They fully comprehend others, watch movies, and read in the language, but when it comes to speaking, they’re not able to construct one correct sentence.
Does this phenomenon have a name? What is it called?
It’s called receptive bilingualism.
Some people even talk about receptive multilingualism.
Let me explain today what is happening to you and why. I’ll tell you what receptive bilingualism is and share the reasons for your ability to understand a language but not speak it.
Keep reading to find out what to do about it and how to improve your Spanish oral skills!
What is Receptive Bilingualism?
As I mentioned, receptive bilingualism is the ability to comprehend a language in written or spoken form accompanied by poor productive skills. It means your listening and reading skills are on a native level while you’re underperforming in speaking and writing.
Some people talk about dormant or passive bilingualism, but there is nothing passive in understanding a language. Your brain works at full speed to process foreign sounds and give them meaning.
So, when you can understand and read Spanish but cannot speak it, you’re receptively bilingual.
Causes of Receptive Bilingualism
Receptive bilingualism usually happens in immigrant families. When you arrive in a new country, the desire to assimilate makes you focus strongly on the new language.
Parents want to help their kids and don’t insist on their children speaking their mother tongue. Kids want to fit in with their friends and slowly start using the community language more and better than their own native language.
The teenage years are the period when this may be emphasized. Teens struggle to find words, notice when they make mistakes, and start to avoid using their home language. Their parents might still talk to them in their mother tongue, but the kids will typically respond in the community language.
Check out: Why Doesn’t My Child Want to Speak Spanish with Me?
Receptive bilingualism also happens to students who learn a language on their own, just by watching, reading, and listening but have no opportunity to speak and use the language.
Most students pass through this phase, but the moment they feel the need to communicate in the language they studied, their speaking skills advance rapidly.
So, to sum up, what might be the reasons for saying “I can understand Spanish but not speak it”?
Here are a few:
- Community language is used both at home and outside it
- Discomfort and embarrassment
- Not enough exposure
- The language is learned not lived
- Few language resources
Is Receptive Bilingualism Good or Bad?
It depends on your language goals. I would love to be receptively bilingual in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. I love Asian movies, shows, and authors, and aiming at listening and reading skills would make me happy. (Read this story about why receptive bilingualism can be highly positive.)
So if your personal goal is to watch Spanish movies, shows, and documentaries and to read Spanish authors in their original language, being receptively bilingual is just great.
However, if you want to communicate better with your Spanish-speaking relatives and friends and travel to Spanish-speaking countries, you should start working on your speaking skills.
Let me show you how to overcome receptive bilingualism so you’ll not only understand Spanish perfectly but also speak it well.
5 Easy Ways to Overcome Your Receptive Bilingualism
Overcome receptive bilingualism by implementing these five easy-to-follow strategies in your daily life.
1. Find Your Motivation
This is the first and most important step. You need to want it to be able to do it.
Think about why it’s not enough for you to just understand Spanish. Are you losing bonds with your mother country, your family, and your childhood friends? Do you want to travel or study in a Spanish-speaking country? Or maybe you want to make your own family bilingual and use your parents’ language with your own children?
Whatever your goal is, it must be clear, concise, and motivating. Write it down somewhere, where you’ll be able to see it every day like on your bathroom mirror or as a wallpaper for your device.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
It’s impossible to speak a language without making mistakes. Only then will you learn and be able to use the language correctly.
Nothing terrible happens if you make a mistake. Just self-correct yourself or see how others do it and next time, use it correctly. Don’t be shy.
3. Sing Spanish Songs
Yes! Music is one of the best ways to learn a language. It teaches you grammar structure, vocabulary, pronunciation, and rhythm.
In your case, by singing a Spanish song, you’ll rehearse and pronounce correct sentences and phrases without having to construct them yourself. Your throat and tongue will start getting used to unfamiliar sounds, and your brain will create useful new connections.
4. Read Aloud
It’s a similar situation to song singing. Grab a Spanish book you like and instead of reading it to yourself silently, read it aloud. You’re getting used to pronouncing complex structures and advanced vocabulary.
5. Speak, Speak, and Speak
Speak as much as you can. Foster Spanish-speaking situations and look for interlocutors who speak Spanish only. Or insist on your family and friends to speak just Spanish to you. Language use contributes to expressive language growth!
Start sending Spanish voice messages to your relatives instead of texting them in English, for example. Create imaginary conversations in your mind and rehearse building sentences in Spanish.
Sign up for a free trial Spanish class to converse with a friendly, certified teacher who will correct your mistakes and guide you in the correct direction.
Start Speaking Spanish Right Now
If you want to put an end to saying “I can understand Spanish but not speak it,” start right now.
With your ability to comprehend the language, polishing your speaking skills is far from impossible. You could even aim for well-paid interpreter jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, interpreters and translators are among the top five fastest-growing occupations!
Let Homeschool Spanish Academy help you overcome your receptive bilingualism. Sign up for a free trial class and start speaking Spanish today in a 1-to-1 conversation! Check out our affordable pricing and flexible programs!
Join one of the 40,000 classes that we teach each month and you can experience results like these
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. I have appreciated the one on one interaction and teaching that my son gets from his teachers. He has gotten to know his teachers, which has increased his confidence in speaking Spanish. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Maple, Parent of 3
“My Son, Heath, is taking the classes. He’s been with Luisa the entire time and we absolutely love her. She is always patient and is a great teacher. Heath’s dad speaks Spanish so they get to have little conversations.”
– William R, Parent of 3
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Erica P. Parent of 1
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