Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens

Language Development

Everything you need to know about Receptive Language & Bilingualism

Receptive and Expressive Language in Kids


Last Updated on August 11, 2023 by Bilingual Kidspot

Receptive Language & Bilingualism

Anyone who has ever heard a speech and language therapist talk about language development or read a child development book will have heard the terms ‘receptive language’ and ‘expressive language’.

So, what is receptive language and expressive language and what do we mean by that? What can you do at home to strengthen receptive skills at home, and when should you worry?

Bilingual pediatric speech and language therapist Marie Robert answers these questions and more:

What is Receptive Language?

Receptive Language is the term used to describe everything a person ‘understands’.

It covers our understanding of speech, but also our understanding of the gestures used by others and the language we read once we are older.

Receptive language skills are how we understand messages sent to us or information presented to us.

Receptive language’s other half, ‘expressive language’, is what we say, gestures we use and what we write to send a message to someone else.

Receptive skills start to develop from birth and become evident after about 6 months of age.

Babies start the with understanding of single words (mostly names and other important nouns) and gestures and then very quickly add other types of words (verbs, adjectives or concept words) and the understanding of sentences, instructions and questions follows very rapidly.

Why are receptive language skills important for children?

Just as we stand before we walk, the natural development of language means we develop receptive skills before we develop the same skill expressively.

If we don’t understand the words first, there is little chance that we will use them properly.

If language is a wall, then receptive language is the foundation.

It is receptive language skills that help us process the world around us and know what to do in all situations. We also need good oral understanding to help us with reading comprehension later.

Can bilingualism affect receptive language?

In terms of development, the short answer is that bilingualism does not affect receptive acquisition negatively.

Receptive language milestones should be the same for children who are bilingual or monolingual.

Bilingualism might affect the numbers of words understood in each language.

Children might be able to understand some words in all their languages and other words in only one language. They might be able to understand lots of instructions in each language separately but only a few consistently in both languages. That is fine!

What counts is having a combined understanding that matches other children of the same developmental age.

Measuring your bilingual child’s understanding in their best language (if they have one) will give you a good idea of if they are on the right track.

Examples of receptive language difficulties in young children

So, having read all of this, when should you be worried that your child might have a receptive language delay or disorder?

If you feel your child is not able to understand the things that any other child of their age can understand, then you might have cause for concern.

Some examples might be :

  • A one a year old who does not look at or reach for common objects when you name
  • Two year olds who do not follow a range of simple instructions at home.
  • Three year olds who don’t seem to be able to understand the simple stories you read together.

We also learn to understand questions in a fairly set order, so checking that your child understands those can be a good way to gauge if they are at risk.

We need to be extra careful when thinking about bilingual children who might be struggling.

Are they struggling because their languages are not balanced (I.e., Language 1 (L1) is perfect for their age, but language 2 (L2) is not good and therefore they are having difficulty in school).

Or are they truly behind in their receptive skills (neither L1 nor L2 seem to be developing correctly for their age)?

If neither language appears to match the developmental milestones for their age, parents should monitor the child closely and seek an assessment with a speech and language therapist or pathologist (SLT/SLP).

How to help young kids with their receptive language skills

If you are worried about your child’s receptive language development, the best thing to do is to get an appointment with an SLT/P.

However, there are things you can do to help if waiting lists are long.

Take notes

Start noting what your child understands and what they don’t and then compare that to what is typical for their age.

Do they understand single words? Short phrases? Instructions with one important word or two important words (sometimes called information carrying words), concrete questions or abstract questions?

Once you find the level of breakdown, use that as your starting block and start working up.

Repeat Instructions

Repeat instructions in daily tasks WHILE doing them with your child, and after a while stop doing it with them and see if they can understand it themselves without your visual clues.

Work on vocabulary

If they understand a lot of nouns, you can start working on their understanding of common verbs we use around the house.

An easy activity for this is ‘if you’re happy and you know it’ with a different verb at each step e.g., if you’re happy and you know it, please ‘sit down’. 

For older children you can work on their understanding of specific questions using the ‘Blanks levels of Questions’ order. Start with concrete questions and move on to more abstract ones as your child builds his or her understanding.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Understanding relies heavily on repetition and personal experience.

So repeat, show, and let your child touch and do things WHILE you say the word or instruction. This helps understanding become more concrete.

Understanding is a fostered skill, so the more you TALK to them, PLAY with them and READ to them, the better their receptive language will be!

Author: Marie Robert – Bilingual Speech and Language Therapist

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