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Bilingual Households and Speech Delays in Children

Bilingualism refers to the ability to use two languages in everyday life. Over 20% of Americans are bilingual. We are often asked - can exposing a child to two languages cause a speech delay? And, if my child has a speech delay, should I only expose them to one language?


The timeline of language acquisition may vary in the short term, however in the long term, studies show that bilingual children are not more likely to have a speech and language disorder. Let’s dive in and take a look at the language development of a bilingual child.


Talk Time Speech Language Therapy | Color picture of father and two children sitting in the grass | Bilingual Households and Speech Delays in Children

Bilingual language acquisition can take place in one of two ways:


  1. Simultaneous Acquisition occurs when a child is exposed and taught two or more languages from birth. Children learning two languages at the same time experience the same developmental stages as children learning one language. Bilingual children can sometimes begin talking a little later than children who are learning one language, however, the timeframe is still in the average range and not considered to be delayed.

  2. Sequential Acquisition occurs when a child learns a second language after learning the first. The introduction of the second language typically occurs after age three and often happens if the child moves to a new country where a different language is spoken. Sequential learning may also occur if the child starts to learn a new language when they begin school, where instruction and social language opportunities are in a different language.

A child who acquires a second language in this manner often experiences a silent or nonverbal period. During this time, the child is processing and building their understanding of the language. As the child begins to gain an understanding of the language, they often begin using one-word labels or short memorized phrases. These phrases, such as “that’s ok” or “What’s that?”, are ones that have been heard and memorized and not generated from the child’s own vocabulary. As their understanding improves, their use of sentences will increase. These sentences will begin to incorporate some of the child’s newly-learned vocabulary. The child may use a predictable phrase while adding a new vocabulary word such as “I want__” or “I play__”, although they may demonstrate use of grammatical errors until they become more fluent. These errors are common and are also often the same types of mistakes that monolingual children make as they learn language.


Milestones of pre-language and language development are the same in all languages and remain the same regardless of whether you're learning one or more languages. Like other children, most bilingual children speak their first words by age one (dada, mama). By age two, most bilingual children can use two-word phrases (my car, more juice). The total number of words (words from both languages the child is learning) should be comparable to the number used by a child the same age speaking one language.


Some bilingual children may occasionally mix grammar rules. They might also use words from both languages in the same sentence which is called code-switching. This is a normal part of bilingual language development and does not mean that the child is confused or delayed. As children reach school age, they can usually separate the different languages but might still blend or mix both languages in the same sentence on occasion. They will ultimately learn to separate both languages correctly over time.


If your child has a diagnosed language delay, you may be wondering if you should introduce or continue teaching a second language. In the case of simultaneous acquisition, children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have no more difficulty learning two languages than children with SLI who are learning only one language (Paradis et al., 2003 & Gutierrez et al., 2008).


In the case of sequential acquisition, if your child already has a language delay, you may be hesitant to expose your child to a second language. However, although these children do face language-learning difficulties, they are not at a greater disadvantage than a monolingual child with the same language difficulties (Lowry, 2016).


Studies encourage bilingual families to continue to speak both languages to their child at home and encourage exposure to both languages across settings, such as school and social activities. When given support, just like any child learning one or more languages, children with language delays can be successful in learning to speak more than one language.


If your child is a learning two languages here are some strategies to help foster their language development:

  • Teach language during daily routines: Everyday routines such as getting dressed, meal time, bath time, and bed time are all great opportunities to talk and increase exposure to vocabulary in any language.

  • Repetition is key: Children need to hear new words repeatedly before they begin to use them independently. A parent can repeat the word they want their child to learn in a simple sentence while showing them what it is which increases exposure and provides meaning.

  • Add on: Repeat what the child says and add an extra word to the sentence to help them learn what they can say the next time. For example, if the child says “more” to ask for more juice, the parent can respond, “more juice!” During play if the child says car, then you can add “car go” “car beep beep.” Repeating the phrase when opportunities arise will help the child learn and use the newer, expanded language.

  • Be a language model: When a child uses gestures instead of using verbal language, or uses an incorrect word or grammar, modeling the correct word or sentence will help them to learn what to say the next time. It is better to avoid telling the child exactly what to say and instead, model what to say.

  • Be patient: Every child learns language at their own rate. Most bilingual children switch between languages and how often and well they use each language may fluctuate. It is important to continue to model, encourage, and support the child’s communication attempts as their language skills improve.

If a bilingual child has speech or language difficulty, it will present in both languages. However, it is important to note that these problems are not caused by learning two languages. If you believe your child may have a speech and/or language developmental delay or disorder, we’re here to help. Contact us! We are happy to answer your questions and help guide you through the evaluation process.


Resources


Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.


Gutierrez-Clellen, V., Simon-Cereijido, G, & Wagner, C. (2008). Bilingual children with language impairment: A comparison with monolinguals and second language learners. Applied Linguistics, 29, 3-20.


Lowry, Lauren (2016). Can children with language impairments learn two languages? The Hanen Centre. https://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/can-children-with-language-impairments-learn-two-l.aspx


Learning More Than One Language. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. https://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/learning-more-than-one-language/


Grosjean, Francois (2018). The Amazing Rise of Bilingualism in the United States. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-bilingual/201809/the-amazing-rise-bilingualism-in-the-united-states

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