Q&A: Minority language at home – what happens when the child starts school in the majority language?

by | Sep 17, 2015 | Coaches, Marianna DuBosq, Q&A When a bilingual / multilingual child goes to school, School-aged children | 0 comments


My husband and I are Russians but currently leave in England. Both of us use Russian at home, and since we have been in UK for over 10 years, we are fluent in English. We have a small baby and wish our baby to speak both languages.

We are not going to place the child at nursery as we wish and believe that the best is to educate child at home. My husband wants our child to be native in Russian: to be able to read, write and speak fluently, therefore, we are going to speak and teach him Russian as the main language. But I worry that it is going to cause some problems when the child goes to English school when he will grow up.

I like to plan things ahead. What is the best way to teach both languages? We have lots of English friends, will our child get confused hearing us speak different language? We are planning to go to different child social clubs like mother and baby classes, etc. Will I need to translate and communicate in Russian or is it OK to use English in classes?

Please give us your advise.



Thank you for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting Family Language Coaching Team. Your question is a common dilemma that parents face who have chosen the minority language at home strategy.

To begin, I congratulate you on setting very clear language goals. You mentioned in your question that your husband would like your child to be able to read, write and speak Russian fluently. Defining your language goals early on the language journey can really help to guide your way forward. It sounds from your note that you have chosen to homeschool your child in the early years yet eventually transition to school in English. I am going to assume that you are planning to make the transition in Kindergarten since you only mentioned that you do not want your child to attend nursery in English.

There are a few questions here and so I will break them down so that I can cover them all.

You ask will my child get confused hearing us speaking different language?

You will be relieved to hear that “No, your child will absolutely not be confused!” In fact, you will be amazed at how well your child will be able to discern when you use English and when you use Russian. You may also find that he or she is able to also figure out when to use one language versus when to use the other. Since English is your community language, you are likely going to have to use English in front of your child at different times but you can relax and know that this will not lead to any confusion language confusion.

You also ask what is the best way is to teach both languages?

For this question, I want to revisit your goals. You want your child to be able to read, write and speak Russian and English fluently. The way I see it you have two main choices. You can either take on the responsibility of teaching both languages or you can solicit the help of the community to teach your child English.

Let’s take a look at both scenarios. If you choose to introduce English in the home you have a few strategies at your disposal. You can either implement the One Parent, One Language (OPOL) strategy and either you or your husband speak exclusively to your child in English while the other parent speaks exclusively in Russian. This will allow your child to learn the two languages simultaneously assuming that an equal amount of language exposure is provided by each respective parent.

If neither parent feels comfortable making the switch from Russian to English, you can choose a strategy called Language Time (aka Time and Place). When using this strategy, you can determine specific times to use English and specific times to speak Russian. You can divide your time in several ways. Maybe you want to dedicate only one hour a day to English, for example. It can be an hour after your child naps and then the rest of the day is done in Russian. You can also be much more diligent and speak English for two weeks and then switch to speaking Russian for another two weeks. Maria at trilingualmama.com has implemented this approach with her family and had great success.

Many families around the world have used these strategies and achieved success but I do caution you that by choosing to split your time you are going to decrease the amount of exposure your child will get in Russian. Keep in mind that once he or she starts school your son/daughter will be bombarded with English and your child’s exposure to Russian will decrease.

Now let’s talk about your second choice which is to allow your child to learn English through the community. In many instances, reading and writing will be taught in Kindergarten and in the follow on school years. (There are of course plenty of exceptions and some children are able to decode and blend during their preschool years. Some children may also be able to write some letters and even their names). For the most part, however, reading and writing is more common in the elementary school years. With that being said, I would encourage you not to worry all that much about having to teach your child to read and write in your community language, English. I would let the school take care of that. It may just make it more manageable for you. You will of course want to complement what he is learning in school at home but you can let his teacher and the school environment take the lead for these skills.

And now let’s address your last concern, you are worried that because you will be focusing mostly on Russian at home, your child may have trouble when he enters school in English. I have good news for you here as well. What you will find is that your child will most likely be able to transfer much of what he has learned with you in Russian and over time transfer those skills to English. If you want to know more about how this many unfold in the early years, you may find this post particularly helpful.

Regardless of what approach you choose, I do want to leave you with some general thoughts on how to promote language development for your child in any language.

In the early months –
– Narrate what you are doing for your child
– Talk about what your child is doing or experiencing
– Repeat yourself often!

When babbling starts –
– Pretend to have conversations with your baby
– Encourage him/her to imitate your sounds
– Copy the sounds he or she makes

Once your child starts producing single words –
– Expand on the few words he or she is producing by adding one more related word
– Describe what your child is seeing so that you can provide the words needed to understand more of the context around him or her
– Take the time to incorporate pretend play

Once your child is making two word phrases –
– Encourage your child to elongate his sentences by giving them more and more words to use
– Ask questions about what your child is doing or experiencing to encourage communication
– Pause from time to time when talking to your child to give him or her a chance to communicate

Marika, thank you again for sending your question to the Multilingual Parenting Family Language Coaching Team. I wish you the best for the arrival of your little one and over the next few years as your child blossoms into a little linguist!


Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq was born in Caracas, Venezuela where she spent the majority of her childhood as a monolingual speaking only Spanish. Until one day, right before her thirteen birthday, her family moved to the United States and her adventure and passion for language learning began! Her love for languages started with her own experience and grew into a desire for teaching others leading her to spend several years in the classroom teaching dual language learners. She is now facing the most challenging yet rewarding facet of her life, that of a multilingual parent with a mix of English, Spanish and German! Marianna is the blogger and podcast host at Bilingual Avenue where she interviews multilingual parents sharing their best practices along with experts in the field of multilingualism providing actionable tips and strategy. She has a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction.


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