What is Lingua Receptiva?

Lingua Receptiva is a form of multilingual communication in which each speaker uses a different language, but each speaker has sufficient listening skills in the other speaker’s language for them to be able to understand each other. Speakers use their receptive competencies in the other language and can therefore understand each other.

This type of communication is called receptive multilingualism. The speakers can understand each other without making use of another language (ten Thije, 2010). In order to do so, the language users need to have sufficient receptive competencies in the language of the other, but they do not have to be able to speak it. Rehbein, ten Thije and Verschik (2010) call this language use lingua receptiva. They define this term as the combined play of linguistic, mental, interactional and intercultural competencies that are activated when the person in question is addressed in a language that he/she commands.

History of its development

The phenomenon of receptive multilingualism already exists for a long time. For example, during the Middle Ages a lot of merchants of the Hanseatic league could not stay at one place long enough to develop an active command of the spoken foreign language, however they could understand the language passively, i.e. receptively (ten Thije, 2010). The concept lingua receptiva was introduced to describe this phenomenon (Rehbein, ten Thije and Verschik, 2012). The travelling merchants spoke their own dialects and could understand each other because of similarities in, for instance, sounds of the different languages or similarities in the word or sentence structure. Only in the fifties of the twentieth century this phenomenon received academic attention when people started to occupy themselves with the mutual comprehensibility of languages and dialects that are related: mutual intelligibility (Gooskens, 2009). The languages and dialects researched resembled each other that much, that to a certain extent the understanding could be considered inevitable and self-evident when listening to the other language. Haugen (1981) named this phenomenon “semi-communication”. Later on, Grin (2008) speaks of “intercomprehension”. The concepts intercomprehension and semicommunication encompass less than the concept lingua receptiva does. In all cases it concerns a form of communication in which people within the same language family use their their own language and understand each other without the need to use an additional language (European Commission, 2012a). In this case it can occur that the languages are that similar, that the other language becomes recognizable. The concept lingua receptiva also concerns the use of languages of different language families. It could be the case that the languages differ to such a high extent, that receptive competencies need to be acquired before understanding can be established. This can be done in two ways: through language acquisition by e.g. a bilingual uprising, or by actively learning receptive competencies in a foreign language by means of language education (Bahtina & ten Thije, 2010).


For this last discussed concept Ten Thije (2010) introduces the Dutch term “luistertaal”, because: “by naming the phenomenon you become more aware of its existence and you can start using it actively” (Taalschrift, 2010). With this term he indicates that the receptive competencies regard the language that the communicator “listens to”; “I speak Dutch, I listen to German”.


Short explanation: Maxime Voestermans created a useful booklet in which she explains luistertaal with illustrating examples. You can read her text here (in Dutch).



  • Bahtina, D. & Thije, J.D. ten (2010). Receptive Multilingualism. In C.A. Chapelle (red.). (2012). Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Chicester:John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
  • European Commission (2012). Studies on translation and multilingualism. Intercomprehension. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
  • Gooskens, C. (2009). Multual intelligibility of written and spoken words between Germanic languages. Presentation at the 7th International Symposium on Bilingualism (ISB).Utrecht University.
  • Rehbein, J., Thije, J.D. ten & Verschik, A. (2010). Lingua Receptiva (LaRa) – The quintessence of Receptive Multilingualism. In J.D. ten Thije, J. Rehbein, A. Verschik (red.). Receptive Multilingualism. Special issue of the International Journal for Bilingualism, 16, 248-264.
  • Thije, J.D. ten (2010). Lingua receptiva als bouwsteen voor de transnationale neerlandistiek. In Internationale Neerlandistiek: tijdschrift van de internationale vereniging voor Neerlandistiek, 4, 5-10.
Geactualiseerd op 5 November 2017.