Why Has My Bilingual Child Stopped Speaking Russian?

by Corey · 5 comments

Dear Madalena,

I am Russian and my husband is British and French (totally bilingual).  We live in the USA and thus speak English.  Since the birth of my son I always spoke Russian to him and his first words were in Russian as well. But now when he is nearly 3 he clearly prefers English.

What is more I can see how difficult it is for him to pronounce a Russian word (half the sounds are  missing or incorrect). He does not refuse to try but gives up after the 3rd attempt to pronounce a simple word (and I do not insist much).  I spend 99% of time with him as my husband works in another state so supposedly Russian should be dominant.

My son watches English programs but he is not in day care, his interaction with other people is quite limited due to our lifestyle.

Should I look for a speech therapist? I am afraid it would be impossible to find anybody working with Russian language. Unfortunately, I do not have Russian speaking friends and he has never been to Russia yet.

I am a bit at a loss how to improve his Russian.  Any suggestions?



Madalena’s answer:

Dear Oxana,

If your son clearly prefers English to Russian, as you say, he must either have had significant input in that language or otherwise found out that English is important to him.

One reason could be that he knows that you speak English too, and so he might be attempting to put into practice the very human Law of Least Effort: one of its linguistic effects tells us that if one can get away with using one language, there’s no need to use more than one. I am not saying that you should stop speaking English in his presence, I’m saying that children, even as young as yours, are extremely skilful at sorting out whatever goes on in their environment for their own benefit (just like all of us).

Speech-language therapy helps only in cases where there is a clinical issue involving language, not particular languages. Your son would be a candidate only if he showed signs of trouble with all of his languages, which, as you seem to imply, is clearly not the case.

He has, from what you write, trouble with certain sounds of one of his languages, Russian. This is typical of child language acquisition, whatever the language(s) in question and whatever the number of languages in a child’s repertoire. He has besides reached the age when children become aware of their surroundings, and of themselves as a simple part of it, not the all-important “centre” that up to then they instinctively felt they were. This crucial stage of cognitive development is bound to create all sorts of difficulties for children, and this is why the first signs of rebellion date from it – point-blank refusals and/or demands, serious tantrums, and so on.

I think you’re doing the right thing not to insist on calling attention to his Russian sound productions. You yourself wouldn’t want to use a language that someone else is constantly correcting for you. My suggestion is that you go on giving your boy as many chances of using Russian as you can, of making him feel confident in its use, and of having fun in it too. You could engage with his favourite activities in Russian, whether doing jigsaw puzzles, climbing monkey bars or discussing the latest TV show he watched. Give him time, and enjoy your time with him.

To further assuage your concerns about his Russian pronunciation, have a look at this Ask-a-Linguist FAQ, where I discuss these and other matters of typical child language development: linguistlist.org/ask-ling/lang-acq.cfm

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tess November 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

Dear Oxana,

You have reached that sad, sad stage when the outside stimuli takes over your childs language. They just simply want to use what comes first to mind, and in an English environment, English comes first to mind, especially if your child goes to preschool. Luckily he is still so young that you can pretend not to understand him when he does not speak Russian with you. The challange lies with you and how stubborn you can be. Also, if your child pronounces something wrong, just repeat it correctly yourself and move on in the conversation. Let him watch Russian videos, go to Russia as often as you can etc. Good luck!


2 Andrew November 4, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Simple, and you mentioned it right there yourself, he’s being exposed to lots of English. Change that so he’s exposed to Russian instead. Find Russian language shows and movies and cartoons for him to watch, if you’ve got high-speed internet I’m sure you can find tons of stuff online, not to mention DVDs and such I’m sure you can find for him if you look hard enough. I don’t know where exactly this stuff is, but I’m sure it’s out there: there are hundreds of millions of Russian native speakers, it has to be.



3 Maria H November 4, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Just want to chime in and agree with what everyone is saying. Seems like around three its pretty common that the majority language becomes a big influence no matter what. There is no doubt he will have strong English living in an English speaking community so the real trick is to squeeze in Russian whenever possible. We only listen to music in Spanish (our minority language), read books in Spanish, play games in Spanish, and if the kids do watch a video, its only in Spanish.

Also I know I can sometimes be surprised how much English I am exposing my kids to without realizing it so you might really think about what a day looks like for you. For example, chatting with a neighbor at the store, making a phone call, reading the signs in the community as we are driving along…I think its often easy to overestimate how much of the minority language they are hearing and underestimate how much of the majority language they are hearing.

best of luck


4 Russian School in Atlanta May 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Hello, Oxana
It’s is really not easy when you do not have Russian friends. But I highly recommend : keep rules and just speak Russian and ask him to speak Russian to you – always!!! It’s very very important. Make it kind of game that no one will understand you and try to visit Russia )))


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