Q&A: How to help a bilingual child with the majority language when using mL@H?

by | Nov 24, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 0 comments

How to help a bilingual child with the majority language when using mL@h?


Dear Coaches

Thank you for the opportunity to ask a question!

My name is Irina, I am Russian stay-at-home mum and I live in London with my English husband and our 6-year-old son. My husband knows Russian well, so we have chosen to speak Russian at home to give our son the best possible start with Russian.

Most of our social life is in Russian as we are active within the Russian community and most of our friends are Russian-speakers. My husband’s family lives in Scotland so we don’t see each other that often.

Our son attended a Russian preschool and still goes to Russian weekend classes. Any children’s programmes he watches are in Russian, and we read a lot of Russian books. I am happy to say that our son’s Russian skills are excellent – he sounds like a native and when we visit family back home, and everybody is so impressed with how well he speaks the language.

My question is as follows: Our son now goes to an English-speaking private school where the expectations are rather high. His teacher has contacted us as she is concerned that our son is lagging behind other children in certain areas.  She has noticed this not only in English story-telling exercises, but also in verbal tasks in science and maths. She thinks it is due to his lacking English-skills – to be noted is that he is top of class when it comes to solving numerical maths problems.

What can we do to help our son? I don’t really want to start speaking English with him or switch our home language to English.

Thank you for any advice!


Dear Irina

Thank you for your question. You are doing a good job at passing on your native language, Russian, to your son and I am happy to hear that he speaks it so confidently.

By your description, it seems that outside school, your son is currently immersed in Russian most of the time. For a bilingual child, exposure to all languages is vital for the languages to develop. Even in families like yours who use the minority language at home (mL@H) approach, there is normally also a fair amount of exposure to the majority language at an early age. However, your son went to a Russian-speaking preschool, so this was not the case for him.

As your son is now attending a school where good English-skills is a requirement for him to do well, and his teacher is expressing some concerns, I would recommend that you look for ways to help him with his English. Sounds like your son’s teacher has thought about this and I would recommend discussing the matter in more detail with her so you can fully understand the situation and see what her recommendations are.

I understand (and agree) that you do not want to switch to speaking English with him, but you can still incorporate more English into your family life. By what you describe, your son’s Russian is well developed, and bringing in English will not negatively affect his Russian skills.

Have you thought about his father switching to English with him? You could still have Russian as your home language to make sure the language is maintained. As English is your husband’s native language, it should feel more natural for him to change the language he talks with his son. It is not necessary to do an immediate full switch, but he could start for example using English when helping your son with his homework. You could then extend the use of English to other activities, depending on what your son is interested in.

I would also make sure that your son has access to interesting books in English, as they are an excellent way of extending the vocabulary and getting used to different ways of expression. I would perhaps relax the Russian-only TV rule a bit and watch some high-quality children’s programs in English. You could also check out the British Council or similar sites for kids’ English.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


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