The Shame Carried by Receptive Bilinguals We Don’t Talk about

Why do so many second-generation immigrants reject their heritage?

Nikola Grace Radley
6 min readMay 16, 2020


Are you a receptive bilingual? Do you carry receptive bilingual shame? I’m a receptive bilingual, and I didn’t realise that there was even a name for what I was until I looked it up last year.

What is a receptive bilingual?

A receptive bilingual is someone who has native-fluency in one language and can understand but not speak a second language. The second language is often the language of one or both of their parents. Many second-generation immigrant populations in native English speaking countries have receptive bilinguals, where they understand their mother tongue, but respond in English.

There is little information based on the numbers of people who are receptive bilingual. Often, these people will say they are monolingual when asked as they are not confident enough in their language ability to cite bilingualism. Still, they are on a spectrum of bilingualism.

My mother’s tongue is Polish, and I grew up in the UK. My mother came to England in the late eighties when there were far fewer Polish people in the UK. The Polish population has grown rapidly. It is now the second most spoken language in the UK with a population of over a million. Most Polish people came to the UK after 2003 when Poland joined the EU.

When Polish people first came to England, many experienced xenophobia. There were complaints about the Poles taking people’s blue-collar jobs away from them because they allegedly would work harder for less money. People complained they didn’t speak English in public too. In short, they were different in some way, and difference takes time to accept in a predominantly monocultural environment.

Growing up, I spent my holidays in Poland. I would go to the lake house in summer, and I have wonderful memories playing on the street where my mother was born with my cousins picking cherries from our garden. I would go back to the UK, refusing to speak English. There were times when my Dad said he felt like an outsider as my mother and I spoke Polish together in the house.

I slowly began to reject my…



Nikola Grace Radley

Freelance writer. You can find me reading under a palm tree in Rio de Janeiro. E-mail: