Q&A: What to do when a bilingual school-aged child’s minority language is the stronger one?

by | Dec 22, 2016 | Coaches, Language development, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Rita R, School-aged children | 0 comments

What to do when a bilingual school-aged child’s minority language might be the stronger one?




I wonder if you have any recommendations. My daughter is seven and has lived in Italy since she was 8 months old, however she didn’t start going to school till she was 5. At home I (mom) speak to her in English only and everyone else (including dad) speaks to her in Italian only. However, she speaks better English than she does Italian, probably because I talk with her the most. My husband did work from home most of her life but I’ve always been in the primary role. She does spend time with grandparents as they live above us, I just have never been sure she gets enough talking time with speaking Italian.

Now she’s in seconda and I’m concerned that she isn’t relaxed enough in her speaking in Italian. Her teachers mentioned it last year, asking if we only speak English at home. I’ve told my husband she needs more regular speaking time but is there more I can do? I worry that it’s holding her back from making friends, as easily as the other kids. She has friends but her rapport is not as easy, from my observations. I could be wrong but I still think she needs more emphasis on speaking Italian cause English just seems easier for her.



Dear Adrianne,

Thank you for your question about supporting your daughter’s Italian – which is the majority language where you live. English is her minority language as she on a daily basis only speaks it with you. By your description, I understand that you are happy with her language development and use in English, which seems to be her dominant language, but unsure about her level of Italian, or at least about her confidence in using it.

When her teachers brought this up, did they give you any details about what exactly they were concerned about? It is always good to ask specific questions to understand the exact nature of the concerns. Did it have to do with her general ability to express herself, certain parts of the vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation or something else?

There are many factors that influence a child’s behaviour at school, with other children and how well they make friends, so I would not necessarily put this down to her Italian-skills. Some children (just like adults) make friends more quickly and easily than others. Do you find there is a marked difference when she interacts with English-speaking friends?

You do have a lot of Italian-speaking family around so it is good that you encourage them to speak as much as possible with her. Maybe her grandparents could help for example by reading more to her? Provide them with plenty of interesting reading material so when she comes around they can sit down and enjoy a book or a comic together. I would also speak to them about your concerns and tell them how important they are in their granddaughter’s multilingual upbringing.

Many parents do find it difficult to “just talk” with their children – it is a skill to be able to conjure up a discussion about anything! Think of something that both your daughter and her dad like doing and then encourage your husband to do these activities on his own with her. This could be walks in the park or some game that is played outside, visits to the zoo or an interesting museum, a board game they play together or anything that is fun for both of them. Try to leave them on their own as much as possible in these situations so they naturally talk Italian with each other.

I would also encourage you to arrange more opportunities for your daughter to spend time with her close friends outside of school. If there is someone she gets on specially well with, i.e. feels fully at ease in the other child’s company, why not invite him or her to your home so they can freely play together? Are there any after-school groups she could attend in your area? Using her Italian in different situations would help her overall confidence.

Since her English is developing normally, I would not expect there to be any speech and language related issue, but if you do feel worried, then for peace of mind, please visit a therapist who is used to dealing with bilingual children and who can give you further advice.

Wishing you a continued 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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