Intercomprehension and Receptive Bilingualism

Meina at TogetherWeLearnMore has an interesting article about her experiences with “receptive bilingualism,” that place where you can understand a lot but you can’t speak. In her case, she shares her journey with Arabic, as well as a lot of outside information on the difference between understanding and forming original thoughts in terms of the workings of our brains. Is it possible to know a language without speaking it?

A little while ago, I wrote about intercomprehension and the EuRom5 program. Reading Meina’s piece, it feels like intercomprehension is effectively receptive bilingualism using languages that are close enough together that you have a headstart on vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, grammar. This goes with my own experience with Spanish. I majored in French (and later got a Masters in it), but my senior year of college I took one year of Spanish. A few years later when I needed to show I could read other languages for my graduate studies, I took a test that said I was halfway through university level third year Spanish. Obviously for speaking I was nowhere near there. But between French vocabulary and a basic knowledge of core Spanish structures I could follow a lot.

These days, the language learning fads are DuoLingo and Anki. But I still really like Assimil. And it occurs to me that what Assimil does in the first wave is to develop a sort of receptive bilingualism so that on the second wave you’ll have the background to pick up the language. Food for thought for those who argue as to whether it’s better to speak from day one or get a little language into your brain before you start speaking.

About G Barto

Geoffrey Barto has been teaching language and culture for more than twenty years. His focus is helping people use language to achieve their goals, both for personal growth and in building their careers. The right words can make all the difference in the world!
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