When someone can speak a language very well, they are fluent. Is there a word to describe a situation where you can understand the language when spoken to you perfectly, but just can't speak it as well? I'm looking for a word or phrase to describe it.

  • 2
    Do you mean "you can understand the language perfectly when it is spoken to you" or "you can understand the language when spoken to you perfectly"? In either case, 'fluency' and 'proficiency' are matters of degree, so adjectives of degree can be added to produce a phrase: "semi fluent", "half fluent", etc. You've got some good suggestions in the answers given; unfortunately, most anything you might use will require explanation, such as "I understand but do not speak the language well" to communicate your meaning.
    – JEL
    Dec 25, 2015 at 6:05
  • You're looking for something like fluently receiving but limitedly expressing, right? You might be in a pickle here because there are more aspects to the linguistic fluency. What if one can write fluently but not speak as well? Are you referring to the fluency as the ability to find words, form grammatical entities or the quality of pronunciation? Or even, perhaps, the knowledge of cultural influence on the language (mine is impossible to speak if you don't know a lot about the "national soul" and you'll be misunderstood frequently). Dec 25, 2015 at 13:56

6 Answers 6


You could consider using passive speaker as defined in Wikipedia:

A passive speaker (also referred to as a receptive bilingual or passive bilingual) is someone who has had enough exposure to a language in childhood to have a native-like comprehension of it, but has little or no active command of it.

As it is not a broadly used term, you might have to add something after saying it for example:

He is a passive speaker in French. He does understand it very well, but can't speak it fluently.

  • 1
    +1 Language skills are often parsed into receptive and expressive - the ability to understand vs. communicate.
    – bib
    Dec 25, 2015 at 12:10

I'm not sure that there is a generally accepted word for this, though in the book 500 Years of New Words: the fascinating story of how, when, and why these words first entered the English language, author Bill Sherk wrote:

The author of this dictionary coined the term sesquilingual in 1975 to describe people who know one language and part of another, a term that probably applies to the majority of Canadians, who know English and a smattering of French, or vice versa. The Latin prefix sesqui- is sufficiently unfamiliar to most people that if you describe yourself as sesquilingual, they'll often think that you speak 6 languages instead of one and a half.

Quite so. The OED definition of the prefix sesqui- is:

Denoting one and a half

Accordingly the word sesquilingual is not a bad description of this situation (the possessed "half" in this case being the ability to comprehend and the missing half the ability to speak), but it has the disadvantage of being effectively a neologism and therefore it's not at all certain that your audience will understand what you mean if you use it. (Not without doing a web search, anyway; such a search will generate a decent number of hits pointing to this definition.)


As mentioned in a comment, "most anything you might use will require explanation".

To describe what you mean in a succint way, the best I can come up with is "good listening comprehension but poor oral production"

  • All you have to say is 'good listening comprehension' because one will always present the best of one's talents and if you could do more than just understand, you'd say that.
    – Mitch
    Dec 31, 2015 at 23:26
  • @Mitch Good call.
    – Centaurus
    Dec 31, 2015 at 23:41

This is current in a C.V. Languages: english : read/write french : fluent spanish : understood

N.B read/write (may have some crazy accent like mine)


To speak broken language Or To speak brokenly: means to speak with lot of pauses and incomplete phrases. Hope this can help.


There is a medical condition called expressive aphasia that fits your definition:

Expressive aphasia (non-fluent aphasia) is characterized by the loss of the ability to produce language (spoken or written).

Although I guess you were thinking of a second language ability, still in a context it might work. Or maybe I'm suffering from expressive aphasia today.

  • 1
    Never heard of this term +1) Merry Christmas!
    – user140086
    Dec 25, 2015 at 5:51
  • @Rathony That might be a sign of receptive aphasia ;-) Merry Christmas to you too.
    – macraf
    Dec 25, 2015 at 5:54
  • Yeah, my brain sometimes doesn't work as if it were damaged. :-)
    – user140086
    Dec 25, 2015 at 5:55
  • 2
    Interesting term, though it seems to imply brain damage which isn't a common cause for the situation that the OP mentions. In my experience it more commonly comes down to someone with a functional brain who just hasn't taught themselves to think in the language. They've studied the grammar and have a working vocabulary but they don't practice creating original thoughts in their head. They therefore understand, but can't express. If I'm grinding my gears speaking Italian I usually realise that I'm thinking in English without being aware of it. A self-administered slap to the head works.
    – Alan K
    Dec 25, 2015 at 6:01

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