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The Truth About Speech Delays in Bilingual Children

As parents and caregivers, we’re constantly concerned about our children’s development. The first few years of our child’s life are spent tracking milestones and celebrating their accomplishments. When our child seems to not be reaching these milestones, it’s easy to become worried. Why is he not crawling yet?  Has she eaten enough? Is he the right size? Should she be talking by now? Does she maybe have a speech delay?

These last ones, we hear a lot from bilingual parents and the rumor still prevails that bilingual children often have speech delays in comparison to monolingual children. But don’t worry! We’re breaking down this myth and discussing what is really happening when a bilingual child is slower to speak than other kids.

Before we get into myths versus facts, let’s go over what a speech delay is. A speech delay is when a child’s language or speech isn’t progressing at the expected pace for their age. A delay is usually noticed when a child is around other kids the same age but doesn’t seem to be making as much progress.

Stanford Children’s Health gives us some idea of normal language development milestones. For example, a child 12 to 17 months of age should be able to say 2-3 words and have a vocabulary of 4-6 words. By 2 years old they should have a vocabulary of up to 50 words and be able to say 2-3 word phrases.

Bilingual children might have a slight speech delay, but it’s usually only a matter of a few months before they catch up. Many monolingual children have speech delays, too! However, no matter what if you’re concerned about your child’s language development, seek the help of a speech-language pathologist near you. Even better if you can find an expert that has experience with bilingual kids.

Monolingual children have one language that they’re learning right from birth. They are exposed to the same vocabulary time and time again. Bilingual children are learning two sets of words for the same objects, which is why it can often seem like they have a speech delay.  Just do the maths, they are spending half time with each language in comparison to monolingual children. Let me use an example: A Spanish-English speaking child will learn two words for “dog” – “dog” and “perro” – and as always the amount of exposure to a specific language will help the child develop more vocabulary in each of his or her languages. So as a bilingual parent you are dividing the language learning time into two, while a monolingual child is focusing all his or her time on learning vocabulary for one language. But let’s look at two different bilingual speech development situations

Two Types of Bilingual Language Development 

Bilingual Kids born into a bilingual family: Simultaneous Learners

This is when a child learns two languages from the moment they are born. Typically, the parents speak different languages such as Spanish and English. The parents use their native language whenever speaking to their child, which means they are getting exposure to two languages from the beginning. Simultaneous bilingual children are able to differentiate naturally between the two languages early on.

Kids that learn a second language once they have learned a first language: Sequential Learners

If a child has their primary language established and then starts to learn a second language, they are considered a sequential bilingual learner. This usually happens when a child starts school where a different language is spoken or if the family emigrated to another country.

Speech delay when a bilingual child emigrates to a different country

It’s not uncommon for a sequential learner to revert back to using short sentences and phrases in their primary language, or not speak at all, for a period of time while they adjust to the transition. Eventually, they will adapt and begin using both languages. Keep in mind that while they may not be producing language, their brains are hard at work absorbing the new input and learning new sounds, words, and sentence structure!

Myth Busted:  Bilingual Children have a Speech Delay

Children who are learning two languages may seem like they have a more limited vocabulary, but in reality, their vocabulary is usually on par with monolingual kids. Instead of knowing 50 words in one language, they know 25 words in each language. Their vocabulary is split between their two languages. So when counting your child’s vocabulary make sure to count the words in each language, the word “dog” in English and “chien” in French counts as two separate words!

Learning a second language may not cause speech delay, but it doesn’t mean that they are immune to it. Bilingual children are just as likely to have a speech or language disorder as monolingual children.

Check out this article from The Mayo Clinic that shows the speech development milestones up to 24 months. If your child doesn’t seem to be meeting most of the milestones, they may have a speech or language delay.

1. Have conversations with your kids about many diverse topics

Start early on, it might feel strange to have a conversation with a baby, but this is how kids learn. Ask them questions, make silly jokes and talk, talk, talk. Best of all make sure your baby is looking at you, as research shows that babies get their cues to develop speech by reading lips.

Describe what you are doing, while cutting the vegetables for dinner. Mention what you are both seeing when going for a stroll. Go through the shopping list, when going to the market. Regardless of which language teaching strategy you choose to raise your bilingual child, try to balance the exposure to each of the languages.  There is no right or wrong in terms of which strategy works best, we know as many bilinguals who were raised with OPOL (one language, one parent), as well as parents who mixed their languages, depending on the situation.  You just need to figure out what works best for your family.

2. Read books in multiple languages.

Reading is a proven, successful tool for developing proper language skills and vocabulary. It has been shown that books contain 50% more words than a child would be exposed to in everyday life. That’s a lot of words for your child to add to their vocabulary!

Look online, at bookstores, or your local library for books in different languages. You can also check out our list of free read-aloud books or browse our bookshop at TimTimTom for personalized stories in a variety of languages!

3. Spend 30 minutes a day playing.

You might be thinking, “What does playing have to do with learning how to speak?” A lot, actually! Playtime is a great disguise for learning opportunities. Most of the time, our child is leading us during play. They are choosing if we play dress up or blocks or sing-a-long. This creates a no-pressure situation to develop language skills in a personal and fun way.

You can expand on the phrases your child already knows. For example, if your child already knows the word “ball” in Spanish is “pelota” you can say, “Sí, es una pelota roja.” (Yes, that is a red ball.) Take familiar words and phrases, repeat them often, and add to the sentence whenever you can. Soon your child will pick up on these expansions and start using them on their own!

We hope that we’ve eased your anxiety about speech delays in bilingual children. Speaking two languages is actually the global norm, although it seems to be a well-kept secret. Your child will benefit from being able to switch between languages for the rest of their life! Keep up the good work, and head over to the blog for more resources on raising bilingual children.


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