Why Can My Child Understand Spanish But Not Speak It?
A look at receptive bilingualism, the complicated feelings it can create for Latinx caretakers, and how to adapt to your child’s language skills.
Despite the fact that I was raised by two predominantly Spanish-speaking immigrants, my mother says that when I was a young child I would flat out refuse to speak Spanish even though I understood it perfectly. A behavior I would later find out is called receptive bilingualism. Sometimes referred to as passive bilingualism, these dual-language learners prefer to speak one language over the other, despite understanding both languages well. “I would say that in the United States, it happens a lot more than in other countries, especially with the Latinx community,” says Mexican American bilingual speech language pathologist Michelle Posner.
According to Posner, this often happens when kids enter school and get all of their exposure to English. “They’ll have what’s called subtractive bilingualism, learn English at the expense of Spanish, and then they’ll either refuse or be unable to speak in Spanish, even though they’re able to fully understand all of it,” says the Washington D.C. pathologist.
“The United States is a country that prioritizes English, so a lot of children and young adults place more value in English than in Spanish, and will either not want to or be unable to,” says Posner. “This is actually a really slow process and most parents don’t realize their children are losing their expressive abilities in Spanish until all of a sudden it’s gone.”
Growing up in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, I was fortunate enough to have daily Spanish lessons at school and consistent exposure to the language, so eventually with age I was able to shed the internal struggle that many Latinx first and second generation kids have with speaking Spanish. But this is not easy for everyone and can sometimes lead to a bit of an identity crisis since speaking Spanish and Latinx culture are often so tied together.
In a recent Vanity Fair article, Puerto Rican Oscar-winning actress Ariana DeBose admitted that she almost didn’t audition for the part of Anita in West Side Story because she felt like she didn’t represent the Latinx community enough because she doesn’t speak Spanish. But bilingualism can look different to every family and it takes work and confidence in a country that does not easily accept those who are different.
“There’s this misconception that bilinguals have the ability to understand and speak and read and write in both equally—but that’s not true,” says Posner. “If you keep on giving all the English input in schools, on TV, in popular music, in movies, then the Spanish goes down as the English goes up.”
Posner says she even sees families speak broken English to their kids in hopes that it will make them more successful in school. “They have this idea that because they are bilingual, that somehow by osmosis, they’ll raise bilingual children, so a lot of emphasis is placed on learning English when they’re young because they want them to be ready for school.”
Receptive Bilingualism is a Common Phenomenon
A study in the journal Pensamiento Educativo found that even within households where exposure to Spanish and English are equal, a preference for English could still occur due to stronger exposure to English outside the home.
It’s a common phenomenon—and one that Seattle-based couple Mariño Carranza and Joy McCullough have witnessed first hand with their two children. Carranza is Latino and a native Spanish speaker, and provides the children’s main exposure to the language.
“Both our kids (11 and 16) have been raised since birth with their father speaking 95 percent Spanish at home. But even though I speak Spanish, I almost always respond to him in English,” says McCullough. “I blame myself, in large part, for modeling that.”
McCullough says their eldest went through a stage at around 4 years old where she adamantly refused to speak Spanish, but now at 16 is working on improving her skills in the language.
“When our second hit that same stage, I figured it would be temporary. But he’s 11 now and still very reluctant to speak Spanish,” she says.
Resistance To Language Can Create Complicated Feelings For Parents
Carranza says it has made him feel like a failure, especially when he sees how they struggle to communicate with his family members who only speak Spanish. But he also recognizes that speaking a second language is something one should desire to do for themselves.
“There was guilt because I thought I should have made them speak in Spanish back to me from the beginning. Now I am not sure how I should feel,” he says. “I think speaking Spanish defines who I am but it does not define who my kids are.”
McCullough says they do their best to speak Spanish every night at dinner, but also make sure not to try to force anyone to speak it.
A tactic Posner agrees with. “It can’t be shamed, and it can’t be forced. Those will not work,” says the pathologist. “But when the child has a connection, and they want to learn, that’s when you can see it come back.”
Heiddi Zalamar, a Latina mental health counselor living in the Bronx, says she also grapples with the reality that her son is mainly a receptive bilingual. “I wanted to pass on the tradition so that he could make more money being bilingual,” she says. Zalamar says she taught her son Spanish from the start, but realized around the time he was 11 years old that while he fully understood the language, he rarely spoke it.
Now that he’s 21, Zalamar says she still tries to encourage him, but finds herself defaulting to English as well.
It’s Never Too Late To Improve Language Skills
While it can become more challenging to become fully bilingual as we age, that doesn’t mean we as parents can’t continue to encourage language growth with our children. It also may mean we need to reframe the language expectations we had for our children and help them feel empowered regardless of where they fall on the bilingual spectrum.
Kids need to feel empowered to speak Spanish, not embarrassed or guilted into it. She cautions that this is a place you might want to break a cycle. “Don’t play dumb like, ‘Yo no entiendo, dímelo en español!’ Shaming them doesn’t work,” she says. “Find something of interest in Spanish and start bumping up that exposure. With my daughter, I would buy her Dogman books in Spanish.”
Whether it’s finding Spanish-speaking television shows, traveling, or finding Spanish-speaking friends, Posner says that finding an activity that your child really enjoys and connects with is when you’ll actually start seeing things click. “You can definitely regain those skills and when the child has a connection, and they want to learn, that’s when you can see it come back.”
She also encourages families to think about the exposure. “Listen to your music in Spanish, Google stuff in Spanish… just do what works for you.”