Understand a Language but Can’t speak it? Here is what to do

The advantages of being able to speak different languages are immense and invaluable. Being able to communicate in several languages helps individuals to fully understand and appreciate foreign culture, work, trade and leverage on the diversity various cultures brings without being impeded by the limitations of their languages. In fact, it has been discovered that most people feel more comfortable being communicated to in their first language than in any other language thereby creating a sense of trust and familiarity. Communication is a two-way process involving two or more parties, where a party speaks or writes (produces) and the other listens or reads (receives) and responds appropriately. Imagine an individual who understands a language but can’t speak it. Imagine how difficult it will be to communicate, how effective he/she could have been if he/she can speak the language effectively and how much can be leveraged upon. The possibilities are obviously endless in terms of trade, tourism and job opportunities in various corporate multinational organizations. An individual must, therefore, be able to understand and speak a particular language to be able to command the language effectively.

Why is it easier to understand a language than to speak it?

Have you ever met anyone who claims to understand a particular language but can’t speak it? Well, it is true and not uncommon to have an individual who understands a language but can’t speak it. There are several levels of understanding languages which include:

Ability to instantly recall and use in speech: This is the ability of an individual to be able to remember or recollect words and use them appropriately in speech and communication.

Recognition with comprehension: This is the ability of an individual to understand the words and comprehend them effectively but not necessarily be able to use it in communication or in speech.

Recognition: This is the ability of an individual to be able to know or recognize words without knowing what it means.

Ignorance: This occurs when an individual has no knowledge or understanding about the language.

Immigrants often experience this as they struggle to create a balance between the command of their heritage language and the language of the country they find themselves in. In fact, a study has shown that it is actually easier to understand a language than to speak due to the fact that speaking is an active form of language while listening is more passive hence a higher level of understanding is required to speak a language effectively.

People are able to understand a particular language but unable to speak it for several reasons:

Lack of real need for the language: Before the start of any exercise, there must be a goal or a problem it aims to solve. The need to speak a particular language is of great importance when it comes to enhancing your fluency in that language. Adults learn different languages for work, travel, business, romance (to understand a partner’s language) and religion. There is no greater motivation than keeping the benefits or merits an individual stands to gain from learning to speak a particular language in sight. Very few people learn the language for leisure purposes while some learn languages for academic purposes. Whatever the case may be, there must be a purpose that learning of the language serves before the learning of the language can be taken from the passive level of understanding to a more active level of speaking the language effectively.

Low Fluency and Vocabulary: Vocabulary is the building block for learning any language as it is the collection or group of words that an individual use. To improve your vocabulary in a particular language, practice is essential and as such, time must be devoted to speaking a particular language to gain mastery of the language and increase your vocabulary. When an individual does not have sufficient words to express himself or herself in the target language, the individual switches to the community language or the language he is more fluent in to facilitate communication. However, what do you do when you find yourself in a community where you cannot find people speaking your heritage language? Practicing the language becomes extremely difficult.

Inconsistency and Indiscipline: Discipline and consistency are integral factors in getting anything done. Successes are made up of smaller successes built up over time to achieve a greater goal. Achieving success in anything, therefore, requires daily efforts which means consistency. Understanding a language is a passive form of its mastery and as such consistency and discipline which results in practice can only lead to the speaking of the language which is an active process. Discipline involves correction, increasing your vocabulary of the language, even when you don’t want to.

Peer Pressure and lack of Pride: It takes a high level of confidence to speak a language that is uncommon and less popular in a particular community. It can be difficult to appreciate a language that or a culture that you have little or no interaction with. This is one of the many reasons why immigrants fare better in the language of their community than the language of their heritage. Some immigrants hide the fact that they can speak a particular language hence; they do not practice the language reducing their fluency in it and making their community language more dominant.

Furthermore, the influence that peers bring cannot be overemphasized as individuals are likely to find it difficult to find people to converse with in their minor language in their society.

How to fix and overcome receptive bilingualism

Receptive bilingualism is the ability of an individual to speak and understand a language but only understand the second language. Receptive bilinguals might have developed the ability to speak the minor language but have lost this ability due to lack of practice or have not developed the ability to speak the language at all. This situation occurs mostly in immigrants who are fluent in the language of their community but can only understand their heritage language. Considering the fact that the world is fast turning into a global hub, the advantages of bilingualism are immense. However, these advantages can be amplified if the individual becomes perfectly bilingual. Learning how to speak a new language is no easy feat as you need a lot of consistency and discipline to effectively speak the language. Here are some tips on how to overcome receptive bilingualism:

1) Creating a need for the language: This is arguably the fastest way to learn to speak the language, regardless of the age of the individual. The greatest source of motivation is believed to come from within, hence with the need of the language in mind and the goal it intends to achieve in view, the individual will start to speak the language in no time. An individual can learn the second language for romance purposes (needs to converse with his partner from another country), for work or job opportunities (the person will find it easy to settle down and work in a foreign country), to appreciate and foreign culture (tourism). These needs will encourage consistency and discipline which help the individual speak the heritage or minor language in no time.

2) An atmosphere for practice: Just like every skill must be practiced to gain its mastery, speaking a language is one of those skills hence time and practice is essential for it to be developed. Immigrants lose their ability to speak in their heritage language due to the fact that they have no one to talk to in their heritage language asides their parents. This challenge can be dealt with by enrolling in a language school so as to maintain fluency in the language. Also, friends can be made with people who speak the language so as to enhance its practice. Visits to countries where the language is being spoken would be helpful. Books and movies in the second language should be used often so as to enhance its practice.

3) Organizing a language club: As much as this approach looks effective for kids who are not comfortable letting others know they can speak a heritage language, it can be highly effective for adults who are having difficulties in improving their vocabulary and their speaking ability in a particular language in general. The effect of peer pressure can be dealt with through this measure and encourage language enthusiasts to develop the speaking ability in the second language. They get to organize language fairs, go on an excursion to places that can help improve their speaking abilities, learn to speak in groups and be given assignments on the language of interest,

Attaining perfect bilingualism can be challenging and as such requires a lot of time and patience to achieve. A passive bilingual child might encounter some difficulties in speech and might talk slower than his monolingual peers, it is the duty of the parents or guardian to try to continuously engage the child in order to speak and understand both languages effectively.