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.
1. Mayken in France
2. Girl, 5
3. German and French
4. Ana Paula’s article reassured me in regard to speech delays I note when I compare my daughter to her monolingual preschool classmates. (And reminded me that such comparisons are never a good idea!)
1. Shannon in the USA
2. Boy, 10
3. English and French
4. I found the section on red flags extremely helpful. As parents, it’s easy to worry over little things and so it’s really good to know which of those are a normal part of bilingual development and which raise red flags.
1- Dani, USA
2- Boy 20 months
3- Spanish, English
4-Good to know that, by reducing the exposure to one of the languages, the language disorder will not go away. Which proves that teaching a second language does not interfere with language development.
1. Amy, Italy
2. Two girls, 2 and 6
3. Italian, English
4. The point that interests me the most is “language delay”. Interestingly, the first paragraph starts out talking about delay (in bold, even), then goes on to address disorders. The third paragraph again talks about delay in terms of the number of words, stating that the number of words in one language may be fewer than that of the peers. Couldn’t this “fewer words” be interpreted as a “delay in that language”. I understand that the total language development of the child will likely be “on par” with peers (when considering the combination of the two (or more) languages), but if one language (the majority language, I suppose) has fewer words than peers, isn’t that a language delay?
Amy – Let me clarify that when I stated “language delay” in the second paragraph, I was referring to language delays that indicate impaired language that will impact children more long-term. Even in monolingual kids, some delays are seen at times for various reasons, but eventually the children catch up and we say they were just “late talkers.” Some delays, however, are seen and persist because of an underlying disorder, so that’s the distinction. Some disorders are obvious and co-occur with syndromes like Down Syndrome, but some language disorders are more subtle with no co-occurring trigger or “reason” (such as hearing loss, or autism, or brain damage), and we call this Specific Language Impairment (SLI).
For bilingual kids, sometimes there might be a delay in either the minority or the majority language, depending on the level of exposure and input in each, but if ONE of the languages is age-appropriate, the “delay” in the other language is not a function of an underlying disorder, so it’s not a cause for concern. In other words, these kids don’t need professional speech-language therapy. Instead it’s a signal for parents that exposure and input in that delayed language needs to INCREASE for the child’s language skills to catch up in that language (whether it’s L1 or L2, although normally it’s L1 or the minority language that suffers). Hope this is helpful!
[Note from Adam: For the sake of further clarity, Ana Paula asked that the second paragraph reflect this conversation and the word “delay” be revised to “disorder.”]
Thanks for the answer. Everything you say makes sense, and in fact, my question wasn’t about kids with disorders, but just about delay in general. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
Fundamentally my question was if bilingual kids are more likely to be late talkers in either language than their monolingual peers. I like the comment in your article about assessing the combined language ability, and this makes a lot of sense for identifying a disorder or lack of one. To make this concrete, my two year old is probably considered delayed in both her majority and minority languages, but I don’t think she has a disorder motivating it, as if you combine her majority and minority languages, she is basically on track. But I wonder if bilingual kids have a higher probability to show a delay when considering only one of the languages. Mine both did/are, and I know there are kids who don’t. I just wonder if anyone has studied the spread.
Anyway, this is likely off topic as I’m not thinking about disorders, just delays.
Thanks again for the nice article.
Amy – There is no research that I know of which indicates that bilingual kids are more prone to be late talkers. I would encourage you to read my article about differentiating late talkers from children with language disorders. There I explain the red flags I briefly mentioned here in more detail. If there has been quality and quantity exposure in both languages and you continue to see delays in BOTH languages in the next 3-6 months (depending on if she just turned 2 or if she’s 2.5+), I would recommend you seek a professional evaluation. I have less concern when I see a delay in only one of the languages. Feel free to contact me directly via my website if you have further questions.
Adam, can you check the link that Ana Paula mentions? It goes to her web page, but to a page called “Help with Language”, that isn’t about late talkers… actually, it’s not even an article.
[Note from Ana Paula: Amy – if you scroll down on that “Help with Language” page, you’ll see the link to the article “Areas to Consider When Differentiating Between Late Talkers and Language Disorders in Children”.]
Regarding the quality and quantity question… there’s never enough of both!
1. Elodie, Germany
2. Boy, 2 years old
3. French (me), English (dad) and German (environment)
4. I find the distinction between speech and language very interesting. Thank you for this! And thank you for the giveaway!
Thank you so much for this post. My husband and I were told recently that our little Zhiyang is probably confused right now so he is still not speaking ‘proper’ words in both Japanese and English. She went on and on about it (even telling me to reply in Japanese if Zhiyang speaks to me in Japanese) because we were having a discussion with her during our baby’s health checkup. I couldn’t really correct her since she was talking in Japanese and my husband just nodded and all. But we are both sure that our baby’s not confused. Why would he be? I grew up as a bilingual and I’m fine. After reading your post, I’m reassured again that our instincts are fine. And I am definitely not going to reply to our baby in Japanese because I don’t want him to communicate with me in that language in the long term. I am peeved that there are people like this who are giving the wrong information to everybody and they still claim that they’re the experts!
MeiHui – In those moments, I would encourage you to advocate for bilingualism by politely educating those around you, even professionals, when they make misinformed remarks or recommendations. The only way to change the prevailing misinformation and myths is by educating, educating, educating!
1. Angélica in Paraguay.
2. Joel, 2 years old
3. Spanish, English and Mandarin.
4. It gave me confort, because I am usually questioned by the people around me that by talking to my son in diferent languages I may be delaying his development.
No kids of my own – 325 at school (French & English)
As a language educator, this was very interesting and helpful, especially some of the indicators to watch for and to ignore. I like the idea of the total vocabulary across the two (or more) languages.
1. Galyna, Holland
2. Girl, 1,5
3. Dutch, Ukrainian, English
4. I was happy to read guidelines given by a professional, it’s always nice to know that what you do following your parent instincts is also proven by science.
1. Tamar, Israel
2. Boy, 10, twin boy and girl, 7
3. Hebrew, English
4. Very interesting article, thanks! It’s reassuring and helpful to know that we’re not causing any long-term damage to our kids, and it’s good to have indicators for possible problems.
1. Emilia from UK
2. Girl, 2 years
3. Polish, English & Urdu
4. I really enjoyed Ana’s article and I hope that the message will be shared across as there are still many scholars and teachers that believe being multilingual is a cause of delay in speech. In my opinion this type of thinking is nothing more but fear of the unknown.
1. Ira in Germany
2. Girl, 7 and Boy, 3
3. English & German
4. Fantastic article! The topic of bilingualism and a lot of comments and unsolicited (and ill-informed) advice has been with me ever since my baby girl was born in 2008. This article comes at a good time, too – I was just told by his carers that my son’s bilingual upbringing is causing issues (same happened with my daughter), which is simply not true. I’ll make sure to translate and print this article for them.
1) Dominika in England
2) Girl, 4 years
3) Polish and English
4) Thank you so much for this informative and at the same time reassuring article! I have too often come across well-meaning but ill-informed professionals that advised me against raisiing my daughter bilingually and tried to encourage me to postpone her learning a minority language until she’s well established at school. Language delay or developmental issues were often mentioned as possible side-effects of bilingualism. It is so refreshing to read your post! Thank you.
1. Anastasiya from Russia
2. Boy, 4.5 years
3. Russian, English
4. Can’t agree more. The problem here is that we literally have no specialists dealing with bilingual kids. So their opinion on bilingual upbringing is 99.9% negative. That causes a lot of troubles for those who practice several languages at home and raises doubts among parents who tend to think about it.
1. Jeanne from England,
2. Girl, 5
3. French, English and German
4. I was particularly interested in the speech development section of the article.
1. Raffaela in Italy
2. Girl, 11 years old
3. Italian, English and French
4. Interesting article. I was one of those children: raised bilingual where the minority language was spoken by my father and at age 4 I completely stopped talking. So my parents switched to only the ML and I started talking again.
Our boy is on the autism spectrum, which we discovered a little late, having already embraced the two languages of our family for our kids. Since then I’ve found it really hard to counter prejudice that being bilingual is somehow harmful to development.
I joined a research group involved in a project to challenge the notion that multilingualism can delay development of autistic children. Also I am working towards getting a book together, collecting the stories of parents of multilingual families where the child has a developmental difference. Anyway, it was encouraging to see your piece. It made me want to shout ‘I told you so!’ If you are interested, I wrote two pieces for Bilingual Monkeys about our family’s story.
Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 1
Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 2
1. Marina in the UK
2. Nicolás, 2 months
3. English and Spanish
4. I found the special attention on the late speech vs language disorders eye-opening. As a new mum I am juggling between learning what to do with a baby and trying to raise him as bilingual from day zero, with loads of doubts and insecurities. This article is going, with The Power of Reading Aloud, to the wall of my nursery right now!!
1 Gabriela in Argentina
2 Gustavo, 13 months old
3 English and Spanish
4 As a new mother, I take every piece of advice I can get, especially now that my baby is about to start talking and I’m the only one speaking to him in the minority language. The article was a good reminder that this takes long-term commitment but it leads to a great goal.
1. Matso in South Africa
2. Boy 4.5, girl 20 months
3. Sesotho, Shona, English
4. It is good to see this perspective. It took a lot of convincing for my son’s speech therapist to understand that we are on a multilingual path that is important to our family. The advice is also important as we are at a point where my son has started taking ‘the path of least resistance’ and speaking more English than any of his mother or father tongues.
1. Vera in Australia
2. Boy 14 months, girl due in August
3. German (exclusively spoken at home) & English (environment)
4. I found this article very interesting as it differentiates between speech and language. While I’m still fairly new in the “bilingual parent business” I’ve been a bilingual early childhood teacher for more than 10 years. It has always frustrated and annoyed me that people blame bilingualism for speech delay. So the part about the total number of words really struck me. It’ll be something to remember to pass on to parents (and colleagues!!) when they comment on a bilingual child’s apparent speech delay.
1. Claudia, UK
2. Twin boys, 19 months old
3. Italian and English
4. I find Ana’s insight into bilingualism to be extremely helpful. As a mother observing language acquisition taking place right now I am constantly second guessing myself as to the approach we are using. Reassurance and explanation regarding both what we should look out for; babbling, two-word followed by three-word word strings and in terms of vocabulary; to remember that individually they may have less words in the languages initially but to remember to combine the two vocabularies. Right now my question is how should we go about correction? So for example a question is asked in Italian and responded to with ‘Yes’ rather than ‘si’ – should we correct the child or just be happy that they have understood and answered the question appropriately?
Claudia – Here’s an excerpt from my eBook “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children:”
“Language learning should never be a source of pressure, fear, shame, anxiety, embarrassment, anger, irritation, or disappointment. Language is about communication – interacting, engaging, and connecting with people – so it should be an experience that brings pleasure and joy in relationships. WHAT your child has to say is more important than HOW he/she communicates it (i.e. the language he/she uses), so we must always demonstrate that we value their words (thoughts, opinions, conversation) more than their delivery…”
Like you, Claudia, it is frustrating (or maybe bewildering?) sometimes to hear my children responding in the community language when being addressed in the home language, however, I believe we have to just keep finding fun and creative ways to encourage home language use. An entire section in my eBook is devoted to this topic about encouraging home language use. There’s also a section on “Strategies for Enhancing the Language Skills of Bilinguals.”
Another excerpt from my book:
“Keep in mind that language use choices vary based on need, opportunity, experiences, motivation, and context. We can encourage, encourage, encourage home language use but never demand, demand, demand!”
So maintain NEED for the minority language at the forefront as you make day-to-day decisions about interactions, activities, and opportunities for engagement in the minority language and culture. And even if/when they respond in the majority language, keep speaking in the minority language!
1. Sofia, UK
2. Boy, 23 months
3. Spanish and English
4. I found this article so reassuring and couldn’t have read it at a more appropriate time! As a first time mum, I get to a point whereby I start doubting my efforts to bring up our son bilingual, especially because more ML words come out than ml and so as the ml parent I get frustrated and second guess the input I give my son. The article has given me peace of mind. My son is with me all day, I sing and read and show him things in the ml language and I always wonder: Am I doing enough? Something I’d like to know about is for example if my son says ‘hi’ to me instead of ‘hola.’ Is it ok for me to reinforce the ml language by replying hola to him? Or if he names something in the ML to me, how do I go about reinforcing the ml? Will it make him think he isn’t saying something right? I wouldn’t want to make him self conscious about communicating. Thank you for this article and the giveaway. 🙂
Sofia – please read my reply to Claudia above, but I would just add that my recommendation is always reinforce the minority language whenever possible in as many ways as possible. If you respond in Spanish to something he says in English, it will not send the message that he is communicating something incorrectly. There’s a section in my eBook called “Strategies for Enhancing the Language Skills of Bilinguals” where I explain 4 specific ways to reinforce the minority language in your everyday interactions.
1. Helen in UK
2. One three and one one-year-old boy
3. English and Spanish
4. This was a really encouraging and informative article. It particularly helped to be reminded that a child may show expressive delays and that some sounds are harder to make than others and hence may take longer to come out ‘right’ but that this is not something to worry about! Some good practical advice – thank you!
1 – Brooke in the US
2 – 6 mo girl and 2.5 yo girl
3 – English and Mandarin
4 – This was interesting and gives me a better understanding on early language development.
My 2.5 yo daughter sounds like a native speaker in both her languages but she goes through phases where one language surges ahead of the other for a few months. She is pretty advanced for her age in both languages, though. We encourage the minority language all the time because we believe it’s never going to be easier to support her in this as she gets older and is more influenced by the community language.
Wow, very helpful. Keep doing and don’t give up. Thanks a lot.
This was a great and timely article! Thank you. As the ML parent, I have a question about the best way to correct construction (not sure that’s the right word) errors occurring in both languages. Our 2.5 year has a fairly sizable vocabulary in both languages (compared to monolingual peers). However, his pronouns are consistently flipped, referring to himself as “you” and parent as “I” or “me.” He’s also repeating verbatim what we’ve said to him when he doesn’t understand/know the answer to a question and at later times as his contribution to the conversation (appropriate to the topic). For example, he might say to me “you want me to pick you up. I will pick you up in just a minute.” (All of which I’ve said to him at different times.) He has plenty of non-echoing/original language. But these two things are “stuck” (especially in the minority language). Is there a way to address this in both languages that doesn’t feel like constant correction? As the ML parent, I don’t have another adult with whom to consistently model correct word choice and pronouns.
Sorry, I used capital ML when I meant lower case. I’m the minority language speaker. (That will change once he’s in school full time and the languages flip flop, but that’s years away.)
Lauren – since your son is only 2.5 years old, I would say correct modeling is your best option at this point. Model in regular everyday conversations, but also pick specific activities that lend themselves to modeling correct pronoun use, like storybooks, for example. Find specific stories where you can model and visually see short “he/she…” phrases (e.g. he is climbing, she is sleeping, etc). You can also use family photo albums and emphasize the pronouns as you talk about the pictures, for example: “Look, here’s daddy…HE is throwing the ball.” “Here’s mommy, I (stressed) was feeding you…!” “Look, YOU were crying here because you wanted your…” “Look at grandpa, HE is …” and so on. Some kids pick up pronouns easily in their regular conversation but some kids need them to be more salient (or stressed) in order to understand and use them correctly. I hope this helps!
Thanks! I will try photos! He currently only likes books with inanimate objects (trucks mostly), and talking about them like people seems to confuse him. But he likes looking at photos of himself and family members on the phone.