My Ph.D. thesis was about those who “understand but cannot speak”. They are referred to as “passive bilinguals” or “receptive bilinguals”.

When I was looking for a thesis topic, Professor Alana Johns, who has been doing research on Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) for many years, told me that there was a lot of such speakers in Labrador: they understood both English and Inuktitut, but could speak only English. At that time, very little was known about the knowledge of Inuktitut by this kind of speakers, and why this knowledge was enough for understanding but not for speaking. Hardly anybody was doing research on receptive bilinguals at the time, even though they had been mentioned in the literature on heritage speakers. And certainly no one before me studied receptive bilinguals who understood Inuktitut.

I had two thesis advisors (instead of one, as usual), because one such specialist simply didn’t exist. In addition to Alana Johns, a specialist in bilingualism and psycholinguistics was needed, and so we were joined by Professor Ana-Teresa Perez-Leroux. This was at the University of Toronto, and my dissertation was, of course, written in English. It is titled “Comprehension of Labrador Inuttitut Functional Morphology by Receptive Bilinguals”.

After we read studies of the weakest heritage speakers (with different heritage languages), my advisors and I started suspecting that our receptive bilinguals didn’t understand these functional morphemes (past tense suffixes, verb personal endings, case endings in nouns, etc.). As it turned out, we were partially right.

It is not an easy task that they face, indeed! Inuktitut has extremely rich morphology. Grammatical case, person, number, verb mood - you name it. A huge variety of verb endings. In addition to singular and plural, they have dual number. Verbs are stuffed by lots of suffixes that add information about exactly how the action is happening. Word formation possibilities are dizzyingly vast. You might have heard about two hundred words for “snow”. These actually contain large groups of words sharing the same roots, each word with a chain of suffixes (there are no prefixes, but when it comes to suffixes - the choice is endless!). I have recorded several Inuktitut words made up of seven morphemes (a root and six suffixes), each translated as a whole sentence. For example, this beautiful verb “nigimmaanguagiattuniakKugulli” means “and today we will also go to a picnic”. And it’s not even the longest.

After a spring spent in preparations, the real adventure began, with three trips to Nunatsiavut (the Inuit area of Northern Labrador). There I collected material for language tests, and tested adult receptive bilinguals, as well as balanced bilinguals (for comparison). The latter were from older generations, the former were younger. Unlike immigrants, Inuits never moved away physically from their language - rather, English itself “arrived” in their midst and started to drive out the language of their ancestors. That is a long story, but a separate one. Here, I will just say that Inuit people keep working to preserve their language: they teach it at schools, offer adult courses, publish textbooks. And yet the young generation does not master it at the same level as English.

And here is what I learned thanks to my research. First, the pure receptive bilinguals (“understand everything, can’t say anything”) simply do not exist. It’s a myth. They all can say at least some words. On the other hand, they understand far less than “everything”. They estimate their understanding at about 80 percent of what they hear. If the topic is simple and familiar, they understand more. In the opposite case - less.

It is then even more paradoxical that since that time, I am considered a specialist in receptive bilinguals - who don’t exist! But in fact, we should sharpen the definition. Receptive bilinguals are people who are able to partially understand speech in a given language, but for whom it is very hard to speak. They have a huge asymmetry between understanding and speaking. Of course, the same happens in other heritage languages as well, in any language combinations.

Then I had to figure out what exactly our receptive bilinguals know. I focused on testing their understanding, but also asked them to tell a story based on a sequence of pictures. As expected, this was quite difficult: the participants often couldn’t recall the needed words and/or made mistakes (some even could not speak in sentences, only said separate words).

The vocabulary test showed that they know quite a few simple, frequently used words. But our participants said that they often don’t know or can’t recall words.

There was also a grammar test where the participants had to choose a correct sentence from a pair of similar sentences. It showed that they don’t always know which one is right, and can confuse word endings. Another test showed that that they do distinguish past tense from future one. But the tense system in Inuktitut is somewhat more complex than that: there are several past and several future tenses that differ in how far they are from the present moment. Our receptive bilinguals didn’t distinguish these.

In short, the main problem of receptive bilinguals is grammar: even if they know all the necessary words, it is hard for them to put them together in a sentence. This was exactly what most participants recognised as the main difficulty when trying to speak Inuktitut. Forming a sentence is difficult, first of all, because they don’t always know or remember the right suffixes. When they listen to others, they can ignore these suffixes, and use the context to guess the meaning of what they didn’t understand. Of course, one may not guess the meaning at all, or guess it incorrectly, but still, at least there is a chance. In contrast, when you have to speak yourself, you have to enunciate all these suffixes and endings. And then, words are not always recalled successfully. So they avoid this, answering in English.

A little more about long words. In one of the tasks, the participants repeated those seven-morpheme words that are translated as a whole sentence. Such words cannot be found in a dictionary, as this whole train of suffixes is constructed anew every time people say it. The number of syllables does not allow to just parrot them without understanding, because our working memory simply cannot hold so many. As for the balanced bilinguals, who can comfortably maintain a conversation with their great-grandmother who has never learned English (there is only a handful of such people left), they repeated these words rather effortlessly. But the receptive bilinguals would get stuck almost right after the root. They knew the root, but not the rest of the word. For that reason, they could not understand the whole word. In the picnic example above, they could only collect that it was “something about food” (“nigi” at the beginning means “to eat”, “food”). One participant recalled that as a child she used to be sent to a store to buy cigarettes, but she could not recall how the request sounded in Inuktitut - except for the beginning of the word (the root): “something about cigarettes, and buying”. She would guess from the situation at hand that it was about buying, and that it had to be done by her.

My study also included an interview with every participant. Their stories were truly interesting. The best command of Inuktitut was found among those who had to learn it out of necessity - that is, who had one or both parents without the knowledge of English. The weakest command of Inuktitut was among those whose parents prepared them to succeed in the new way of life, creating conditions that helped English but neglecting Inuktitut. As adults, some participants tried to speak Inuktitut with anyone who knew it, but noted that they would often start a sentence and then get stuck and switch to English.

Many of them had yet another problem: worrying about a negative reaction from others. It is less common now, but in the recent past, the speakers from older generations, having little understanding of the problems that the younger people faced, would deride their mistakes, while some could even call them names or say something offensive. It was traumatic for the receptive bilinguals, to the point that they would not want to speak their ancestral language anymore.

There is one more interesting discovery. All the receptive bilinguals who participated in my study were proud to know at least something in Inuktitut, and were unhappy about not knowing more. They said that Inuktitut is deeply connected to their ethnic identity (“our language is who we are”), and it is frustrating not to know it.

In short, I learned a lot back then that applies to my work today. After my thesis, I did more studies, including those on children from Russian-speaking families in Canada. But that’s another story (or, rather, stories).

You can read my dissertation here.

Marina Sherkina-Lieber