The question I am asked most often when talking about raising my children bilingually is, “But won’t that confuse them?” Often times I believe the hidden or unspoken question behind this query is, “Won’t they be delayed if you do that?”
The first thing I want to address as a speech-language specialist is that there is no research-based evidence that bilingualism causes language disorders. Again and again the research demonstrates no negative effects of bilingualism, even for children with known language impairments, such as children with Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example. It has been shown that children with language impairments are capable of learning two languages. The impairment will be evident in both languages, but it will not be made worse or become more severe because of the bilingualism. In other words, the exposure to two languages is not adding to the language impairment, and the language impairment would likely have been present even if the child was monolingual. Yet another way of explaining this is that bilingualism does not make children more or less susceptible to language disorders.
What to expect
Though bilingualism does not cause language disorders, you might see some expressive delays as children learn to navigate both languages in their environment. For example, their vocabularies may not be as advanced in each of their languages in comparison to their monolingual peers, or their sound system (or their ability to articulate the specific sounds of both languages) may be developmentally delayed, but this does not mean that bilingualism is failing them or is not the best option.
Sometimes children may have fewer words in each of their languages early on in their language development, but if you combine their vocabulary use looking at the total number of words/concepts they know and use in both languages, you’ll find their vocabularies are normally at the same level as or above their monolingual peers. It is also important to remember that the two languages of bilingual children may develop at different rates and at different levels of proficiency. Bilingualism does not mean perfect and equal proficiency in both languages. You may also find that language skills fluctuate over time or that one language tends to dominate in terms of vocabulary knowledge and grammar skills. For example, I was schooled in the United States from age 10 through graduate school, so my academic vocabulary is much more advanced in English than in my other two languages, although I am still able to read and write effectively in those two languages.
You may also see sudden drops in expressive ability in the minority language once the majority language is introduced. However, with continued quality and varied language exposure and input, the minority language skills should gradually increase again. (The link to my PDF article “Will All My Efforts as a Bilingual Parent Be in Vain?…Don’t Lose Heart!” can be found on this page of my website.)
In addition, as the majority language skills of children become more complex, their minority language skills may appear delayed and children may stop using the language altogether, but this does not mean that the minority language is gone. For a bilingual parent, this reality can be frustrating, and the tendency would be to stop speaking the minority language altogether. The best action to be taken is to continue speaking the minority language and to find concrete ways to increase the importance of and need for the minority language in their lives, such as more contact with speakers of that language, particularly same-age peers who are strong motivators.
I would also like to clarify the term “speech” versus “language” in the world of speech-language pathology. When we refer to a child’s “speech,” we’re normally referring to their articulation of sounds or their intelligibility (ability to be understood by familiar and unfamiliar persons). When it comes to the speech of bilingual children, the general rule of thumb is that we are only concerned if a child struggles with a particular sound or sounds in both languages. Sometimes interference occurs and a child may have dialectal variations due to the interference of one language’s sound system with the other language’s sound system, particularly if these systems are very different and have few sounds in common. Dialectal variations are acceptable and should not pose a concern. Also keep in mind that there are early developing sounds and later developing sounds in speech development as children tune in to the sounds specific to their language(s) and learn to produce them precisely.
Red flags in language development
There is a universal progression of how children learn language, regardless of their native language, where children move from making sounds to babbling, from producing single words to producing two-word combinations, then finally to combining three or more words to form complete sentences. It’s also common that the use of nouns (naming people, places, and things/objects) precedes the use of verbs (action words). As far as the sound system of any given language, you’ll see that some sounds are easier to form than others, so children often approximate difficult sounds until they’re able to say them correctly. A marked delay in any of these stages of development could potentially indicate an underlying disorder. However, a delay may also be evident if there is not enough quantity and quality exposure to the language(s) in the child’s environment.
In my line of work, I often find that language delays in only one of the languages of bilingual children are not due to the introduction of two languages but due to insufficient exposure to those languages. Children need quantity and quality language input in order to learn language, and this input must be constant, in other words, frequent, uninterrupted, ongoing, and long-term. Many times in my practice I see monolingual kids with limited language exposure who experience the same difficulties as bilingual kids with limited language exposure, so the problem is not the bilingualism, the problem lies in the amount of language exposure or the lack of rich language input through varied experiences.
One of the biggest red flags in terms of language development is seeing very little or no language growth over an extended period of time and not so much seeing slower progress than “normal” when comparing your child to his/her peers (which is usually not a wise practice!). If your child 1) demonstrates communicative intent (the desire to communicate), 2) attempts words more than gestures to communicate, 3) plays appropriately with age-appropriate toys, 4) appears to understand most words in his/her immediate environment, and 5) is steadily learning new words on a regular basis, there is less reason for concern. (For more thorough information on the above, you’ll find the link to my PDF article “Areas to Consider When Differentiating Between Late Talkers and Language Disorders in Children” on this page of my website.)
Ultimately, you know your child best, so trust your intuition and seek professional guidance if you have concerns. A general rule of thumb is if your child is not speaking much between the ages of 2 and 2.5, it may be wise to seek a professional evaluation.
Seeking professional help
If you seek professional help and the therapist attempts to assess your child’s language development in only one language or only gives heed to the “test” results and does not take into account your observations and input about your child’s day-to-day interactions and language use in both languages, find another therapist. It is always best to work with a speech-language specialist who has experience working with multicultural families.
If a language disorder is in fact present, reducing the language input to one language will not make the disorder go away or easier to improve. It should go without saying that the most influential people in the lives of children with language/developmental delays are their parents and family members who love them unconditionally and who strive to give them the best quality of life despite challenges they may face. This is why it’s important not to eliminate the most important tool parents have to facilitate language, emotional, and social growth in their children—the home language! So as a parent, be informed and alert to potentially harmful recommendations made by well-meaning but misguided individuals or professionals.
Passing down bilingualism is as “simple” as parents speaking a particular language or languages to their children, but the practical everyday application of that is not so simple. It means a commitment to making the target language(s) constantly and significantly accessible and relevant in everyday life. Monolingualism is certainly less messy and less complicated. However, I believe the long-term benefits outweigh the intentional hard work and the many challenges that accompany the work of fostering bilingualism. My final encouragement to every bilingual parent is…don’t give up!!!
The 3 lucky winners of this giveaway are…
Ira in Germany
Sofia in the United Kingdom
Raffaela in Italy
Congratulations! And a big thank you to everyone who entered. Ana Paula and I wish all of you much success on your bilingual journey! (And don’t miss her helpful responses to the questions posed below.)
Win a copy of Ana Paula’s eBook Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children by entering the giveaway. There will be 3 winners!
Just follow these simple steps…
1. Share this post with others via social media. This is an outstanding article and should be widely read. Use the sharing buttons below or simply copy and paste this link…
2. Leave a comment below with the following information. (And please proofread your comment, before submission, to check that the information is complete.)
2. Your children and their ages (Example: Girl, 11 and Boy, 8)
3. Your two (or more) languages (Example: Japanese, English, and Spanish)
4. What are your impressions of Ana Paula’s article? Share your reaction with her in a few sentences. (Example: I think Ana Paula offers a lot of thoughtful wisdom in this article. One point that deserves to be emphasized is the idea that a child’s difficulties—whether in a first or second language—can often be traced to insufficient language exposure.)
3. All entries must be submitted by the morning of Wednesday, July 15 (Japan time). On that day, the comments will be printed out and cut apart to serve as entry slips for the drawing. The slips will be placed in a big, empty tub of Lego and my two children and I will each select a winner at random. I’ll then contact the lucky winners by email and update this post with the results.
Thank you for entering the giveaway, and for sharing Ana Paula’s post with others. And if you have a particular question for Ana Paula about her post, feel free to include this in your comment, and I’ll encourage her to respond.