Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens

Language Development

Speech Delay in Bilingual Children, Advice from a Speech Therapist


Bilingual Children and Speech Delay

Updated June 2023.

Today we are talking about Speech Delay in children, and in particular speech delay in Bilingual Kids. In this article we will go through the answers to 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. Does bilingualism cause speech delay?
  5. At what point where a speech delay is diagnosed in a bilingual child, do you drop a language?
  6. Should speech therapy be delivered in the majority or minority language or both?
  7. How do you encourage your clients and their families as they navigate the world of other medical professionals especially when multilingualism is uncommon?

Related: Late Talkers

Does Bilingualism Cause Speech Delay?

Hello I’m Christina-May, a bilingual speech & language pathologist, lecturer and a parent coach. I have a pediatric service “Hearing Speech & Literacy”. Today I am going to try to answer your questions about Speech Delay in children.

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 bilingualism, 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.

Recommended: 5 Stages of Second Language Acquisition


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 in children?

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

They may also 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 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.

4. Does Bilingualism Cause Speech Delay?

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)

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. How do you encourage these families?

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 about bilingual kids and speech delay. For information you can contact her at hearingspeechliteracy@gmail.com

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  1. Paola Matos

    Hello, my name is Paola Matos. My son is about to turn 3 years old, I am from Canadian-Peruvian and speak Spanish to my son, my husband is born Canadian and speaks in English to him. He has been exposed to both languages since a baby, but most recently he has been more exposed to Spanish, since my parents live with me here in Toronto, and also they went to Peru for summer vacation and got stuck there for almost 6 motnhs due to Covid19, so as a result the only language he has been exposed to is Spanish, he came back with my parents in a repatriation flight on June and just since there he had again been exposed to English with my husband. He was going to a program in a school supported by the City of Toronto which is like a daycare, in which kids up to 4 years attended, and they sang, played and intectacted with other kids, my son was doing some progress since there was an English teacher, he went there until January 2020 went he left to Peru and now that he is here unfortunately due to Covid the program is closed. My son speaks a few words, mostly in Spanish, he understands thought when my husband talks to him in English or when my parents or I talk to him in Spanish. I am starting to get worried since on September next year he has to star kindergarden, and I am not sure he is prepared for it. Should I go to a specialist.

  2. Danielle

    As an ESOL teacher in our school system for the last 16 years it is critical to have a working relationship with our SLP! Love this article! Could add so much more from the ESOL teaching profession perspective! I feel this Subject is not as respected as it should be and valued!

  3. Katie

    Great article. Just wanted to add that Sign Language works the same was as spoken language so the child could be bilingual in English and BSL/ASL

  4. Stav

    Hi there, i my son is 2.5 and speaks Greek and English. He’s very silent and def doesn’t meet the language milestones. We as parents and the health visitor are worried about Autism but in mild forms of it (affecting social&interpersonal domains). My son refuses to imitate socially and it’s indeed very frustrating when i try to teach him new language or my husband does. He just won’t say anything..I read in your post about “modeling, expansion”. Could you please explain to me what modeling and expansion means maybe in an example so i try it with my little one and see how he reacts?

  5. Sasha

    My son is 21 week and we speak 3 languages at home English, Persion and Russian. He understands when you speak to him on all thoes languages but he doesn’t speak at all! He only says mama when he is upset apart from that he doesn’t say anything. Is that mean that he have a problem and I need to take him to see someone??

  6. Cara

    Well as a language major myself, I have observed the bilingual development of my own children (they are now 24 and 23 years old) and noticed that they spoke later at around 2 1/2 years of age. I learned my second language starting at 12 years of age so my development naturally was different. My children don’t conjugate and cannot do so because they learned each language as spoken first.

  7. Joanne Lauer

    I loved this article. I am currently tutoring an Iranian woman in English. They have been here about a year and a half. The little boy is five and speaks both Farci and English well. The little girl is 3+. She is bright. She understands everything you say to her in both languages and can carry out directions very well. She wants to speak badly. She will go on and on with gibberish, but she is having great difficulty speaking. She hits every one of the red flags you have mentioned. In fact, she never babbled or made sounds as a baby. Up until a few months ago, she could only say 12 words total in both languages. They were all easy words. She is a bit better now, but still has all the same issues. She has a hard time with a lot of sounds. Can’t say two or three syllable words unless it is something like mama, When she came to the US at the age of 20 months, she couldn’t say anything in her native language. If she does say two syllable words like paper, it is very haltingly, not smoothly like pa_per. She has just now started to put two words together, but once again it is easy strings, like my toy or my house. She speaks no sentences at all. She would point for things she wanted, she would make her mouth move when she was hungry. Her brother does not speak for her, so it isn’t that. She has her own made up words and a lot of the time, the family has no idea what she is saying. I would say she is about 18 mounts behind at least. Next year she will go to preschool, and I am worried that she will not fit in due to her lack of ability to talk to anyone. I have gotten her tested by her headstart program and even took her to our local hospital for speech diagnosis. They didn’t even have her say any words at all to hear that she can’t repeat them. I often have to put her hand to my mouth so she can feel what it should sound like. Her ears have been checked, and she shows no signs of not hearing. She understands everything said to her in either language. They speak Farci at home, and we speak English to her when we come and so does her headstart teacher. I can’t get anyone to recognize there is a problem. The hospital says she is 1 point away from needing speech therapy, so she isn’t getting any. Why does no one thing these red flags are important? I am very frustrated trying to get her help.

  8. Mariel Viera

    Great article! My daughter is a 7 year old Spanish and English speaker. She understands everything you say to her in both languages, but it’s hard for her to respond and she hasn’t started reading or writing yet. She thinks it’s hard for her to remember, which has been true, but her memory has gotten much better lately and I think in her minds eye it’s just become a part of her identity. None of her therapists have ever accepted she be bilingual and always insisted she drop English. I’m looking for a manual of sorts that could tell me what to do with her so I myself could teach her. Her environment is in Spanish. We really need help with this because we can’t afford a therapist anymore. I was reading definitions and what comes closest to what she has is Expressive Language Disorder. Please recommend a good book with exercises, and thank you for your time.

  9. Denisse

    Great article! I have a point to make though and please don’t take this as criticism. 🙂 The concept that simultaneous bilinguals initially have an undifferentiated language is a myth and not supported by research. Even when they mix languages they adjust the proportions of each language to match the listener’s language. They acquire translation equivalents (one word in each language with same meaning such as “chair” and “Silla”). If their languages were undifferentiated, children would most likely not bother learning each. They also respect the syntatic rules of each language. The list goes on and on. There is ample evidence that young children, even infants, have separate representations of their languages. Just thought I would throw that in there because usually the idea that their languages are fused early in development 1) is rooted in the idea that bilinguals are confused and 2) scares bilingual parents away from using two languages at home. You may want to read a few articles by Fred Genesee. He’s a great source! Again, great read. 🙂

    — A developmental psychologist who studies bilingual language development

  10. Lenny sinaga

    I have 3.5 years old daughter. When she was baby she have problem with her motoric, after fisioterapi finally she can walking at 21 months. She also have speech delay problem. She have problem with pronounciation, she can’t answer a question but repeat it. If she is trying to make sentence, she mixed 4 languages in once ( english, indonesia, french and baby language). I’m from Indonesia speaking with her with indonesian language. My husband from switzerland speaking with her with french language. Me and my husband speaking english ( because i can’t speak french and he can’t speak indonesia. We are living in small city in switzerland that nobody speak english here. She only know around 200 indonesian word. Maybe 50 french word. A few english words. Here we start teraphy a few months ago. Once in 2 weeks or sometime once in 1 months. They said she still little ( i’m not really agree with this ). Because i want she speak better before she start go to school.

  11. Esmira

    my son is 2.5 years old there is a delay in speech he say lot of words but no sentence yet .I would like more information causes the bilingualism because it becomes very nervous when we ask for something and is confused much. We speak in Albanian at home and daycare English.

    • Lia Morales

      My daughter is learning 4 languages. English, Spanish, Vietnamese and ASL. All are spoken in our household. At 16 months she uses ASL more than the other ones. Does that mean she has a speech delay? She will say 6 words in ASL but will say one word in the other languages.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.


  14. 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.

  15. Chris

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

    • Comment by post author

      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

  16. Thanks! A useful and interesting post!

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