Q&A: How to support a trilingual child when the minority languages are similar?

by | Oct 27, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 1 comment

How to support a trilingual child when the minority languages are similar?



Dear Rita,

My wife and I read your book and we strongly recommend it for other multilingual families.

My wife is Russian, I am Serbian and we live in London. We are sticking to the golden rule that mother speaks exclusively Russian to him, daddy speaks only Serbian to him and nanny speaks English to him. He will start nursery in English in 2 years’ time anyways.

However, given that I am fluent in Russian, I speak Russian to my wife. My concern is that our boy will speak Russian to both mum and myself because he will know that I can speak it and mummy and daddy use it for their conversations.

Another concern is that he will be mixing Serbian and Russian which are different, but still Slavic group of languages. I have not come across any posts where parents speak one minority language among each other which is not mother tongue for both of them (Russian in our case) and where parents’ mother tongue languages are different, but still similar to some extent (Serbian and Russian).

Ant advice is much appreciated.



Dear Milosh

Thank you so much for your kind feedback – I am so happy to hear that you like my book!

Your son is lucky to be growing up trilingual and your setup is ideal with three different people talking Russian, Serbian and English with him. It is especially beneficial that you and your wife have chosen to speak the minority languages with your boy, since he will attend and English-speaking nursery in a couple of years and English will become a more dominant language for him.

Your common home language is Russian so your first concern is whether your son will want to speak Serbian with you as he will of course be aware that you know mummy’s language, Russian, as well. It is true that it will probably be a bit more challenging for you to pass on Serbian than it will be for your wife to do the same with Russian. This is simply down to the fact that he will be hearing more Russian than Serbian. It does however not mean it cannot be done, even in a trilingual setting!

Your second concern is whether he will mix the two languages, since they both belong to the Slavic group of languages (Russian being East Slavic and Serbian South Slavic). While there are overlaps in the vocabulary between the two, my understanding is that they are still fairly distinct, especially in their spoken form. If I am correct, a Russian-speaker may be able to understand a fair amount of Serbian written text, but would not necessarily be able to fully understand a discussion in Serbian, and vice versa. Be it as it may, most bilingual children mix their languages while they are acquiring them, but with enough interactive exposure to both (or all) their languages, they soon learn to distinguish them.

The way to address both of your concerns is to make sure that your son gets enough varied exposure to Serbian and that you stay consistent in using Serbian with him every time you address him directly. Even though Russian is your common family language and even in a situation where all of you are together, I would recommend that you stick to Serbian with him. Based on the context of the discussion, your wife should still be able to follow what is being said. A good tip is for you and your wife to agree to always ask if there is something you do not understand in the other language. This way she will not feel left out of a conversation.

By being consistent in your use of Serbian with your son you create a habit between yourself and him: when you two speak together it is in Serbian. It will probably take a bit more effort from you to start with, but from my own family I know that it can become a habit of a life time – after 18 years in the UK, my adult daughters still only speak Swedish with me, although we all otherwise speak mainly English in our daily lives.

The other important aspect is arranging as varied an exposure to Serbian as possible. Make sure you have a lot of different books you can read to him; sing and listen to children’s songs; read and recite rhymes; play games – all in Serbian when you are with him. Get him used to participating in video calls with other Serbian-speakers from an early age. When he starts watching children’s programmes, watch the Serbian ones together and discuss what is happening.

If at all possible, visit Serbia (and Russia) whenever you can arrange it. Being immersed in a language and seeing other people, especially children, use the language is always a highly effective boost for the language. Since you live in London, which is a very multicultural city, there is also a good chance that you could find Serbian (and Russian) playgroups which your son could attend. A quick search by the language and ‘London’ in Facebook came up with several different groups that you could post in to connect with other families with Serbian and/or Russian as one of their languages.

Wishing you a successful trilingual 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.

1 Comment

  1. Eilidh

    I cannot comment for Serbian but I know that there are many Russian nursery schools, playgroups, Saturday clubs and even a full-time school in London. Also maybe having a special time that is Daddy only could help to separate the Serbian from the Russian. Sometimes location can make a difference, so something like a trip to the park, a walk or a breakfast together which involves leaving the house (which could be associated with Russian) could help 🙂


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