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 mother’s culture-if it wasn’t relevant to my social growth, what use was it? I thought.
When I was a child, I was bilingual but not only bilingual but bicultural too. Learning languages is as often as much about culture as the words. The language I spoke to my father and out of the house held a different culture to my mother’s and her family’s.
I went to Polish schools on Saturdays and dressed in Polish folk dresses. I sang Polish songs, loved (and still love) Polish food and chocolates such as krówkis and śliwkas. My first holy communion dress was a traditional Polish dress which looked like a giant wedding dress compared to the simple satin dresses of my English classmates.
At around ten years old, I started to phase out Polish slowly. I decided it was too different. I didn’t feel as comfortable using it as English, and eventually, I would only respond to my mum in English. I started to notice the cultural differences I had from my friends and society. I slowly began to reject my mother’s culture — if it wasn’t relevant to my social growth, what use was it? I thought.
Perhaps unknowingly, some of this rejection was caused by the xenophobia around Polish people in the early 00s.
My mum already feeling like an outsider in the UK didn’t push me to speak when I refused and looking back I was very hardheaded. The older I got, the more I would ask my mum to talk to me in English. I desperately wanted to be like everyone else, like most teenagers.
Eventually, partly through teenage laziness, and partly through a lethal concoction of shame mixed with remorse of my diminishing language ability, I stopped going to Poland. Perhaps unknowingly, some of this rejection was caused by the xenophobia around Polish people in the early 00s. And unlike riding a bike, unfortunately, speaking a language is not an ability you retain without using.
The real damage had begun. There are thoughts that I remember having that now make me feel terribly guilty. I felt embarrassed by my mum’s accent and that the food we had at home was different from my friend’s dinners. Now I know that my mum made all our dinners from scratch no sauce from the jar or chicken nuggets. My meals were superior, and I didn’t realise and complained.
I know teenagers do things that often counteract what’s best for them. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon but rejecting not only a language but my culture is a huge regret of mine. I didn’t realise I was denying a large part of myself that makes me me. I feel guilt for the pain I must have caused my mother. It would have been hard for my mother not to take that I was rejecting her.
We want to blend in so much that we hurt ourselves and our parent/s in the process.
Perhaps if I went to a school or lived in an area where differences were celebrated, speaking Polish may have been held as a badge of honour among my peers. But, growing up in a small North-Western UK town, where the only other cultures were from Bangladeshi people and the odd Chinese family that owned the fish and chip shops dotted around, diversity was not something that was celebrated. It was not cool to be different.
My Polish identity became a very personal part of my life, rarely shared or spoken of with anyone else. It wasn’t really until I started to leave my town and changed my friendship circles to more open-minded people did I begin to feel proud to be different. Since then, this feeling has only grown.
My story is, unfortunately, a common theme among receptive bilinguals that the primary reason that we don’t speak the language is due to our external environments not embracing different cultures. We want to blend in so much that we hurt ourselves and our families in the process.
As I started to embrace my Polish side, I did begin to take Polish lessons. I was the only person on my course with Polish heritage, the rest were males that had Polish partners. It became apparent that my understanding of the language was advanced while my reading and speaking were elemental. My writing was the worst. I can’t write anything.
My mother speaks to me in a mixture of Polish and English, we often get a double-take from people in the supermarket. I hardly notice it. For me, it’s merely my mum talking. I don’t distinguish between the language. When people ask me to form more than an introductory sentence in Polish, I struggle but among Polish people something in my brain clicks and sometimes I can say words and phrases I didn’t know I still could.
There have been no published studies on how to turn receptive language abilities into full bilingualism. There has been a rare study of a group of receptive bilinguals in Australia, on South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. It is common for them to understand the other languages spoken on the island but only to speak one themselves.
“If we understood receptive abilities better, we could design language teaching for these people,” says Ruth Singer, a linguist at the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity Project of the Australian National University, “which would make it easier for people who only understand their heritage language to start to speak it later on in life.”
I for one would be very interested in this to happen. The likelihood is if I spent a considerable time where I was forced to speak Polish, I would pick the language up quicker than anyone with no ability in a Slavic language.
One of few negatives of being a native English speaker is that these situations where you are forced to get out of your comfort zone language-wise are harder to come by, with English being the most learnt second language in the world.
Right now, I am learning Portuguese as I live in Brazil. One of the main reasons I love Brazil is its diversity and cacophony of cultures. I now have friends that speak a multitude of languages from all walks of life.
I’m going to Poland (hopefully) this Christmas. I know I will still feel some element of shame and my pride will take a hit as I won’t be able to communicate with my family as I would like to, but I am ready to embrace with open arms a part of me that I have turned my back on for too long.