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Bilingual Children and Language Development – Expert Advice from a Speech Therapist

bilingual children and language development, expert advice speech therapist

Language Development in Bilingual Children

Are you concerned about your child’s language development? Do you have a bilingual or multilingual child and want to know if they are on the right track? I would like to introduce to you Speech and Language Therapist Mary-Pat O’Malley who is here as my guest to give expert tips and advice on the questions most asked about language development when raising bilingual children.

Hi! I’m Mary-Pat, a lecturer, speech-language pathologist, researcher, author, and creator of the www.talknua.com blog which is all about parent-child communication including bilingualism. In this article am going to answer the following questions about the language development of bilingual children:

Will speaking two languages or more cause delay my child’s language development?
Is it harder to acquire two languages than just the one?
Won’t they get confused?

Speaking two languages or more is actually the normal state of language affairs across the globe, but this fact seems to be a closely guarded secret. If you speak two or more languages then you are in the majority globally, so bilingual and multilingual language development is actually normal. It’s not confusing or slower or harder at all.

How does it all happen?

Babies start hearing languages in the womb

Studies have shown that babies prefer stories that were read to them in the womb over new stories they hear on the outside- isn’t that amazing?!! In the womb, they hear the intonation patterns of the languages around them.

I’ll never forget the night my daughter was born. When I held her and said ‘Hello’ her eyes widened and she turned her head towards me and I realised that she recognised me- a magic moment for sure! This makes sense when you think about it; before the onset of civilisation, mothers and babies needed to be able to recognise and locate each other in order for the baby to survive and that hasn’t changed!

Babies are also born able to produce all of the sounds of all of the world’s languages

They can hear the difference between individual speech sounds like pa and ba when they are only a few weeks old. Gradually then these abilities are reduced to the speech sounds of the languages that they hear in the languages of their immediate environment.

This explains how as an adult it can be really hard to learn a language that has different sounds to your languages. I had a stab at learning Mongolian many years ago before going on a trip there. I would say a word one way and my teacher would say ‘No, try again’. I’d say it again and she’d say ‘That’s it’ and I’d think ‘But to me it sounded exactly the same as the first way!!’ It was too late for me to go beyond the basics without having to invest major effort.

Babies are born wired and ready to acquire languages

As many as possible David Crystal, a well-known linguist, would say. First words generally emerge at about 8-15 months depending on what book or research article you read. But before first words comes the child’s intention to communicate and their realisation that what they say has an impact on another person. Intentions are things like commenting to you on something that’s happened, waving or saying hello and good bye; pushing something that they don’t want away. And these intentions generally begin to emerge at about 8-10 months.

How do you know it’s a first word? It needs to be the same sequence of sounds used to refer to the same object or action every time e.g. wawa for water every time, whether it’s water in the sink, in a glass, in a puddle, the sea and so on.

language development-bilingual-children

Babies start hearing in the womb

Don’t take ages and stages for early language development too seriously

It’s best to think of them as general benchmarks.  Australian speech-language pathologist, Caroline Bowen talks about 12 months –ish and I think this is a good way to look at it. There is a lot of individual variation in children’s early language development and things like the quality and amount of interaction with adults play an important part. The main thing is to keep an eye out for progress; you would expect to see new words emerging regularly. By about 18 months, the average vocabulary is 50 words. Children need about 50 words before they start to combine words into phrases like my bottle, mama gone, want ball etc.

If you’re concerned that your child’s language development is not progressing then here are two useful and effective things you can do.

1. Keep a communication diary for a month- nothing fancy – keep track of what your child likes to communicate about and how he does it. Does he use sounds? What about words? They’re not supposed to sound like adult words so just write down what you think it is.

Generally when we measure things, it makes our observation skills improve so you might notice that your child is actually communicating and using more words than you think.

2. Spend a dedicated 30 minutes a day playing with your child without distractions. Follow what they are interested in and talk about what’s going on or what just happened. Keep questions to a minimum and just have a running commentary going.

You can also try saying things they’d say if they could. What does this mean? Well, if he says ‘all gone’. You say, ‘dinner is all gone. You ate all your dinner. Yummy dinner!’ And so on, keeping it sounding natural.

Most children (monolingual and bilingual) develop speech, language, and communication without any problems.

There is a subset of children who present problems in their speech and language development. These problems may have a negative impact on social interactions and cognitive development in the early years, and may affect reading and writing and learning in school.

Most of the following information is from Kathryn Kohnert’s excellent book on language disorders in bilingual children and adults. She is one of the well-known and respected academics in the area.

Late Talkers & Later Bloomers

About 15% of otherwise typically developing 2 year olds don’t say their first words at about 12 months or several hundred words and many 2 word combinations by 2 years. (2 word combinations are things like my doggie, Mummy gone, Mummy home)

Late talkers don’t yet have a minimal core vocabulary of 50-100 words and do not produce 2-3 word combinations by 2 years of age. Because typically developing children usually show a rapid increase in understanding & producing words at this age, the most obvious thing about 2 year olds with a language problem is their limited talking or word use.

About ½ of the Late Talkers will catch up to their peers by age 3 without intervention and these children are called Late Bloomers.

The remaining half of Late Talkers are at risk for persistent delays & can benefit from early intervention to help with potential long term negative effects of the underlying problem.

Late talkers at greatest risk for a persisting speech delay appear to have problems with understanding as well as producing language; a family member or members with language or learning disability, limited use of natural gesture and symbolic play skills (feeding teddy, taking teddy for a walk, pretending a saucepan is a drum) and more frequent or lasting occurrences of otitis media or glue ear.

Between the ages of 3 & 6, children’s language dramatically increases. For children with language problems or a speech delay, sentences are likely to be shorter, less grammatically complex, or produced with grammatical errors.

EXPERIENCE WITH TWO DIFFERENT LANGUAGES DOES NOT IN ANY WAY CAUSE LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT PROBLEMS.

To the contrary, regular experience with 2 different languages has been linked to some social and cognitive advantages. Unfortunately this message still hasn’t got out there!

So keep doing what you’re doing with lots of communication opportunities being built into your day. Describe what’s going on around you and keep questions to a minimum, especially ones that you already know the answer to!

If you would like to read more about language development in bilingual children you may be interested in other posts such as Bilingual Kids and Speech Delay or Bilingual Children with Autism and Downs Syndrome

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bilingual children and language development. Expert advice from a speech therapist

8 Comments

  1. Aviva

    I would like to know when you suggest initiating a third language? There are three spoken in our family and I have had a lot of conflicting advice as to whether one should introduce all three from birth, or rather the third at a later stage?

    • Bilingualkidspot

      Hi Aviva,
      You can introduce a third language at any time providing you can give your child enough exposure to it.
      From birth is probably the best way, but most research will tell you that if you start before age 4 they should be able to learn it just as well.
      My boys are 2 and 4 now, bilingual English/Italian. We introduced a third language, Spanish, just over a year ago. We would have introduced it earlier however we do not speak Spanish ourselves.
      My 4yo now speaks quite fluently, and my 2yo speaks a bit of a mixture of all three languages.
      The best thing is to make sure you have a plan, who is going to speak what to your children and when.
      It really depends on who speaks which languages between you and your partner.

  2. This is a great post that I would share with parents who are thinking about raising their children in more than one language. It is important to know all the facts so the myths do not hinder the bilingual journey.

  3. Aga

    What about bilingual twins? My twin boys did not start saying single words until they were between 2 and 2.5 years old. They are now 3.5 years old.They started using sentences when they turned 3. Can twins have a speech delay? What about boys? Twin boys? Many thanks

    • Hi Aga- interesting question! There isn’t a lot of recent research on this topic but older research suggests that twins may be at risk for speech and/or language delay if they are premature, or low birth weight and parents may have less time to devote to communication while they are busy tending to the babies’ needs. There is a lot of individual variation in early child language development and where children are late talkers (less than 50 words at 24 months- about 15% of children) the majority of them catch up. It’s hard to predict who will catch up and who will need SLT though. And late talkers who catch up generally tend to have weaker language skills than typically developing children. Gender is a consistent risk factor for speech and language problems as is family history of speech, language, or literacy problems . Hope this helps answer your question- feel free to email me marypat@talknua.com if you have any further questions.

  4. Alissia

    What if a child has a speech delay and is being raised in multilingual environment (3 languages)? Do you suggest to select one language and use all time and effort to help with its development or continue with 3 languages but risk a much slower progress?
    Apart from the speech delay, child does not have any problems with health (Not Autistic, perfect hearing, no psychological or neurological problems)

    • Hi Alissia- thanks for your question. The most important thing to bear in mind is what does your child need the languages for? For communicating with immediate family? Extended family? Peers? Religion? Education? and so on. When you say speech delay, do you mean the pronunciation of words or the amount of words and combining words? As for one language per context, the research shows that this is not the most effective route to bilingualism- lots of people like OPOL but I’m not a fan myself and the literature suggests that mixing does not disadvantage children in terms of their language development. However, if you want to keep languages separate in a natural way, then activities like reading and singing tend to be naturally monolingual.

      So, if your child has a diagnosed speech delay (pronunciation), then it can help to work on the sound patterns that are common to the languages so e.g. final consonants being left out in English and German for instance- as final consonants are important to both languages, then you’d expect to see transfer across languages. The question is which language to intervene in when – you can work on all at the one time or on each one separately- it depends on the individual language contexts and the kind of problem and the language needs- 50 Shades of Grey I’m afraid! Hope this helps answer your question somewhat- feel free to email me marypat@talknua.com if you have any further questions. And here is a post I wrote on language mixing that might be useful too http://talknua.com/all-mixed-up-language-mixing-and-switching-in-young-bilingual-children/

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