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Speech Delay in Bilingual Kids: Expert Advice from a Speech Therapist


Bilingual Children and Speech Delay

Today we are talking about Speech Delay in Bilingual Kids. I would like to introduce you to Christina-May, Bilingual Speech and Language Pathologist, who is here as my guest to answer everything you need to know about Speech Delay in Bilingual children. She will answer the following questions.

  1. What are the general milestones in bilingual language development?
  2. What is a speech delay?
  3. What are the possible causes of speech delay?
  4. At what point where a speech delay is diagnosed in a bilingual child, do you drop a language?
  5. Should speech therapy be delivered in the majority or minority language or both?
  6. How do you encourage your clients and their families as they navigate the world of other medical professionals especially when multilingualism is uncommon? 

Cristina-Evangelou-Speech-TherapistHello I’m Christina-May, a bilingual speech & language pathologist, a dyslexia assessor and tutor, an undergraduate lecturer and a parent coach. I have a pediatric service “Hearing Speech & Literacy”  in Athens, Greece which offers services to families with bilingual children. Today I am going to try to answer your questions about Speech Delay.


1. What are the General Milestones in Bilingual Language Development

First and foremost, it is important to distinguish between the two main and most common types of bilingualism. Simultaneous and sequential, this is important as they have different milestones.

Simultaneous bilingualism refers to the acquisition of both languages from birth. Sequential bilingualism refers to the development of a second language before the age of 3.

Simultaneous bilingualism

A child appears to go through two stages; the first stage the undifferentiated stage is where a single language system comprising of both languages is formed and the very same processes that a monolingual child develops occur at the same time as monolinguals.

This meaning that they achieve the same fundamental milestones in language development with respect to babbling, their first words and the emergence of word combinations despite the fact that they have less exposure to each language compared to their monolingual counterparts. The only difference is that both languages may be used interchangeably in the same sentence or even within the same word; blending and mixing languages together.

The second stage is the differentiated stage, this is when the child differentiates between the two languages and uses them as separate systems, for different purposes and sometimes with different people.

In the following table milestones for simultaneous language development are described and red flags for language issues are noted.


Sequential bilingualism

Acquiring a second language is a largely distinct process compared to developing a second language. The sequentially bilingual child draws on knowledge from their first language and create their own pace depending on each child’s character, unique social and cultural circumstances and motivation.

In the following table milestones for the sequential acquisition of two languages are outlined without chronological ages attached.


2. What is a Speech Delay

A child is considered to have speech delay if his/her speech development is significantly below the norm for children of the same age. A child with speech delay has speech development that is typical of a normally developing child of a younger chronologic age. This meaning that the speech delayed child’s skills are acquired in a normal sequence reaching speech milestones at a later date.


3.What are the possible causes of speech delay?

The possible causes of speech delay in any child are congenital, i.e. present at birth and may be: hearing impairment, mental retardation, anatomical abnormalities, cognitive deficits, genetic differences, neurologic impairment and physiologic abnormalities.

Or they may be acquired i.e., result from illness, injury or environmental factors such as maturation delay or psychosocial deprivation. Autism spectrum disorder is also directly related to speech and communication delay.

In otherwise normal development and even more specific to bilingual development we may experience the following: An initial silent period for children. In later days we witness a smaller vocabulary when each language is considered separately. Some view this as a delay, but when both languages are considered together they are equivalent to larger vocabularies, we refer to this as conceptual vocabulary.

There is currently no empirical evidence to link bilingualism to language delay. Dual language learning does not cause confusion and or language delays in young children, as shown from grounded research (DeHouwer, 2009; Paradis, et al., 2011).

“There is no scientific evidence to date that hearing two or more languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition. Many, many children throughout the world grow up with two or more languages from infancy without showing any signs of language delays or disorder”. De Houwer (1999, p.1)

4. At what point where a speech delay is diagnosed to you “drop” a language?

There is no empirical evidence at present to justify restricting children with developmental disorders from learning two languages. Therefore dropping a language has never been an option for our service. We engage the family in an informed decision process, using powerful evidence from current research, that even children with genetic predispositions for language learning difficulties can achieve competence in two languages at the same time during their preschool years.

At the same time we explain the importance of maintaining a home language for emotional and behavioural regulation as well as family and cultural relatedness.  We ensure that demands on the child to learn languages that will not be central to future communicative needs, i.e. schooling are alleviated.

Even with bilingual children with severe conditions such as autism spectrum disorders we have been able to maintain both the languages spoken in the home or the school/community with additional help of course. Their learning differences do not impair their language abilities beyond what we know is true for monolingual children who face the same learning challenges.

We also ensure there is an understanding that the parents have to provide optimal and well-structured native input in the language they wish to see their child proficient in always keeping in mind that focusing strongly on one language can lead to language dominance in bilinguals.

Also schooling has a strong influence on language dominance. If parents decide to switch to a monolingual mode, this is respected but never encouraged. The home language is always encouraged and parents are supported throughout the therapy process.

5. Should speech therapy be delivered in the majority or minority language or both?

Neither language needs to be compromised if you adopt a more flexible service delivery model. In an ideal world, the ideal situation would be that your SLP can and does deliver therapy in both languages.

When the SLP cannot provide such a service he/she should be able to train parents in parent training programs to use specific techniques. The SLP provides direct instructional intervention to the parent who then becomes the primary administrator of therapy.

Specific language facilitation techniques can and are often used by parents as the agents of therapy in their mother tongue. These are: modeling, expansion, recast and responsive feedback, using the language the therapist cannot. This requires additional professional abilities, time and preparation but it can yield exceptionally good results.

Interpreters can also be used to facilitate better communication between the parents and the therapist.  With a qualified therapist’s help, parents and others who care for children who are being raised bilingually should take a dynamic responsibility to ensure that bilingual children get adequate and regular exposure to both languages.

6. How do you encourage families as they navigate the world of other medical professionals especially when multilingualism is uncommon?

It is the duty of all SLPs to provide services to linguistically diverse children. Our code of conduct dictates that we provide services that effectively supports the development of the home language and includes parent and paraprofessional training.

We provide flyers with a bilingual child’s milestones to pediatricians, teachers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists and any other professionals who might come into contact with the children we serve.

This helps to disseminate information about bilingualism and its advantages, so that any “advice” from naysayers to drop a language may be avoided.

We encourage our clients to use the information given to them when they visit other medical professionals by taking this information with them and talking through the therapy process with other professionals.

As a last resort, we provide them with full reports to take along to their appointments; these reports clearly outline how the therapy process is encouraging the acquisition of both languages by supporting both the home and the community language in different respects.

Christina offers online consultancy for those who would like to know more. For information you can contact her at

Related Articles:
Language Development in Bilingual Children
Bilingual Children with Developmental Delay
When to Ignore Your Doctors Advice on Speech & Language Development
Late Talkers, What To Do if Your Child is Not Talking Yet

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-De Houwer, A. (1999). Two or more languages in early childhood: Some general points and practical recommendations. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
-De Houwer, A. (2012) Bilingual Language Development in Brooks, P.J. & Kempe V. Encyclopedia of Language Development, SAGE
-Fierro-Cobas, V. & Chan, E. (2001) Language development in bilingual children: a primer for pediatricians, Contemporary Pediatrics Vol.18, No.7, 79-98.



  1. Thanks! A useful and interesting post!

  2. Chris

    Thanks for the great article! I have a quick question though, how much of this applies to (simultaneous) trilingual kids? Many thanks 🙂

    • Hi Chris,

      Thank you for your comment and question.
      There is much less research when it comes to trilingualism. What we do know is that when more than two languages compete the ones with the most exposure always win. Striking a balance in exposure is always a challenge. Even more specifically, we know that vocabulary wise, trilinguals have a huge conceptual vocabulary and may experience longer periods of mutism. Further research is needed to answer this question in full! – Christina

  3. Purnima

    Hi, my 5 year old boy is bilingual n he started to speak with echolalia around 3 years.. his echolalia is vanishing slowly when his understanding grows, but still exists at places where he doesn’t understand. English is his preferred language though we speak first language at home. I have done Add but Pediatrist, speech therapist all believe it’s just his language delay. His attention is quite tricky most of times but the school is doing best to support him. Is it wat we doing is right or do I need to do something different?

    Many thanks.

    • Hi Purnima,

      Without knowing all of the details, it is difficult to answer.
      I am sure that your pediatrician and speech therapist have a better picture than I have.
      You should follow the advice that you are given and make sure that your child’s communication is functional and is supported in both languages.
      If you like, you can email me at


  4. James Edwards-Marche

    Hi Chontelle,

    We are a bilingual family living in Italy. I’m British and my partner is Italian and we have two children.

    Our first learned both languages in a way that left us with no concern but our son, who is 22 months, can barely say any words. He does a lot of babbling but, apart from “Mama”, a variation of “Daddy” and something we recognize as “thank you/grazie”, that’s pretty much it.

    What would you advise us to do? I know you live in Italy too so was wondering if you know of anywhere that would be specifically suited for a bilingual child. We have an appointment on Monday but I’m concerned to say the least.

    Thanks for any help you can offer.


  5. Catherine Judson

    Hi Chontelle,

    My 3-year old daughter was raised bilingual starting birth. I speak Mandarin to her and her father only speaks English. I also have 2 step children who only speak English when they spend time with us.

    She just started Public Charter School recently as PreK-3 here in Washington DC, which is a certified Montessori academy. DC Public school requires all students to fill out a second language survey, where I told the school that Chinese is also spoken to her at home. As a follow up, they conducted an assessment and noted that she has limited English language proficiency and qualifies for their “English Language Learners Program ” which is there to help kids get up to speed. I searched that this is not the same as ESL program., as I firmly believe that English is not her second language.

    I know my daughter is a bit introverted, she loves to read and sing, but she has time communicating and this is for both languages. I am not sure if this is due to bilingual delays. Currently, Chinese comes out more than English, but she is started to say more words in English, like ” I forget”, etc. since she started school Her daycare ( English only) says she speaks English just fine…but she will turn around and say something else in Chinese. She knows animal names by either English or chinese.

    Doing this ELL program means to pull her out from the montessori program twice a week for a 35 min session, I am wondering if this is necessary. I hope this is temporary until she sorts the languages out. I told them that she is experiencing delays due to bilingual environment.

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