Episode 92: Q&A – How to teach two languages at once and strategies to promote language development

How to teach two languages at once and strategies

On this episode of the Bilingual Avenue podcast, I share strategies with a listener who is interested in teaching her child two languages, English and Russian.  I explain to her who the One Parent, One Language strategy works as well as the Language Time approach. I also walk her through a series of strategies that she can implement to promote language development for her little one from the early months all the way to the when her child starts making two word sentences.

Transcript #92

Hello and welcome to another Question and Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast.

If you like what you hear you can catch this podcast every week by subscribing on iTunes or Stitcher Radio.

We have another great question today submitted via the Multilingual Parenting blog.  You can check out the transcript for this question at bilingualavenue.com/episode92 or on the Multilingual Parenting website.  I will have a link on the show notes as well.

Have you liked the Facebook page for Bilingual Avenue?  It’s growing every day and I would love to see you on there too!  It’s a great way for me to connect with you and find out what type of information would serve you and your family best.

Alright, let’s jump right to the question.

My husband and I are Russians but we 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. In August, we are going to have a 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 the child at home. My husband wants our child to be native in Russian: to be able to read, write and speak fluently.  Therefore, we 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 grows up.

I like to plan things ahead. What is the best way to teach both languages? We have lots of English friends, will child get confused hearing us speaking 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 Marika 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 for 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 you on 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 on making the transition in Kindergarten since you only mentioned that you do not want him 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.

Let’s start with the first question.  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 is able to also figure out when he or she should 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 for the language journey.

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 which gets at your question or you can solicit the help of the community to teach your child English.

Let’s take a look at both scenarios to give you as much information and that way you can make an informed decision.  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 English exclusively to your child while the other parent speaks exclusively in Russian.  This will allow your child to learn the two languages simultaneously assuming, of course, that an equal amount of language exposure is provided by each respective parent.

That’s your first choice.  You can have one of the two of you switch and you can give it a shot with the One Parent, One Language strategy.

If neither parent feels comfortable making the switch from Russian to English, you can choose a strategy called Language Time.  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.  Maybe 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 Babin at trilingualmama.com has implemented this approach with her family and had great success.  Her husband speaks the community language to the family which is French and then for two weeks she speaks to her children in Spanish and then they switch for another two weeks they speak in English.  It has worked really well for her.  That is a balance that she has found.  If you choose this strategy, find something that works for you and is manageable.  I do advise that you try to come up with a structure around the times. Like I said, if you think you can only do an hour go for that.  If you want to be much more ambitious you can do the two week switch.  Just think about it. Give it some thought, find what you think will be sustainable and give it a go!

Many families around the world have used these strategies and achieved success but I do caution you that by choosing to split your time between English and Russian you are going to decrease the amount of exposure your child will get in Russian.  Keep in mind that once he starts school he is going to likely bombarded with English and your child’s exposure to Russian will decrease.  So really think about if you want to be the one responsible for teaching the two languages.

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 or she is learning in school at home but you can let his teacher and the school environment take the lead for these skills and then just play a supporting role at home while you are still working on Russian.  Again, find what you think will be more manageable for you.  If you want to give it a go with both languages, plenty of people do that.  If you want to just focus on Russian and let the community take care of the English, you can do that as well.

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, specifically those early years, I do have a previous episode that you may find interesting.  Another parent had asked a similar question about attending a Spanish immersion school.  You can tune in to episode 88, you can find hat at bilingualavenue.com/episode88 and you can see how I break down what is the content that you can generally expect in your preschool years and how that may translate to what your child needs to know before Kindergarten.  I also have some strategies of how you can partner up with your teacher to make sure your child has a smooth transition when it comes to languages and the academic environment.

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.  Since you are still expecting you can start right off the bat with some really good strategies.

 In the early months –

  • Narrate what you are doing for your child.  Even though he is not going to be able to speak back to you, just talk and talk and talk about what you are doing so they are to just hear that communication process happening.
  • Talk about what your child is doing or experiencing. If they are playing with a toy or they are looking at something, just talk about it so they are becoming aware of what is happening around them.
  • Repeat yourself often. Those common words like “more,” “water,” “mommy,” “daddy” repeat them over and over so your child can hear those patterns and slowly over time your child can incorporate them into their own vocabulary and expressive language.

When babbling starts –

  • Pretend to have conversations with your baby. It may feel really silly but your child is going to love it and you are actually going to be promoting communication from very early on.
  • Encourage him or her to imitate your sounds. Start making some sounds that you maybe have heard them say in the past to see if they can repeat them when prompted.
  • Copy the sounds he or she makes. Sometimes you will initiate your sounds, sometimes just copy what they are doing.  Little ones just love those type of interactions.

Now let’s fast forward a few months and 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. Children love that is there is lots of opportunity to include vocabulary when you do 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. Keep modeling that type of communication and you will see that slowly they will start to incorporate them.
  • Ask questions about what your child is doing or experiencing to encourage communication.
  • Remember to pause from time to time when talking to your child to give him or her a chance to communicate. Even if they are just saying a little bit, it’s important for us to talk and then pause and see how they react. 

Incorporate all those things whether you are just doing Russian or whether you are doing Russian and English and you will see lots of great results when it comes to communication.

Marika, thank you again for sending your question to the Multilingual Parenting.  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!

For anyone else if you have a question you’d like to see answer on the show, just send me a note via email or head over to bilingualavenue.com/contact.  I would love to feature your question here as well.

May you have fun travels on the language journey.  Hope to see you again on the Avenue.


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