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Baby Medical Q&A, Issue #103 Bilingual Children and Speech Development
June 01, 2015

Welcome to another edition of Baby Medical Q&A News.

Bilingual Children and Speech Development

This month, I want to discuss bilingual children and speech development. I often have children brought to see me because their parents are concerned about their speech development and, in particular, they want to know if speaking 2 languages is adversely affecting the child's speech development.

Normal Speech and Language Development

There are stages of speech and language development that all children go through. Most children have a about 6 or so words by 18 months and then by 2 years they are putting 2 words together (or more accurately, putting 2 concepts together). By 3 years, most children can speak in sentences.

You can read more about normal speech and language development by clicking here.

Bilingual children develop language in the same way, but in my experience, they can be slower to actually speak in either language. This is what concerns their parents, but in most cases, it is just a phase of learning more than one language and it will pass. It is often referred to as the 'silent period'. It is nothing to worry about.

What reassures me in these children is that they have appropriate understanding. If that is the case, then I know it is just a matter of time before they actually speak.

What types of Bilingual children are there?

There are different ways that children learn 2 languages.

Some children hear 2 different languages from infancy, usually because their mother and father speak to them in different languages. My friend spoke to her children in French, her husband spoke to the children in Spanish and the nanny spoke to them in English! This is known as Simultaneous Language Acquisition.

Other children hear one language at home in their first years and then learn a second language when they go to preschool or school. This is known as Sequential Language Acquisition.

Often, a child will understand 2 languages but will choose to speak in one (known as the dominant language). For example, a mother may speak in Spanish to her child and the father may speak in English. The child may answer the mother in English even when spoken to in Spanish. This is nothing to worry about. You may be surprised then when you hear your child speaking Spanish to a relative who doesn't speak English, but that isn't an uncommon scenario.

Is it normal for my child to mix the languages up?

Yes, it is not uncommon for children as they are developing to mix the languages together if they have learned two. But this is no different from a child learning one language who will often mix that language up. It is part of normal development to not get it right first time. It is nothing to worry about.

What is the best age to teach my child a second language?

Children learn easier when they are younger, so it is never too early to teach a child a language. Equally, a child is never too old to learn a new language but the older they are the more difficult it is, particularly after puberty.

The key to learning any new skill, including a language, is practice. So, giving your child the opportunity to hear and speak the language as often as possible will work best.

Once my child starts school, is it better to just speak one language?

No, if you have a language you speak at home, continue to do so. Your child may favor using the language used by their peers (the school language) but being exposed to the second language at home maintains their skills in that language, even if you don't experience them using the language.

When should I be concerned about my bilingual child's speech development?

As I mentioned at the start, if your child can understand at an appropriate developmental level, then I am not too concerned. However, if your child is exhibiting 'red flags' for language development, particularly receptive language (or understanding), then you should seek help.

To read about normal development for different ages, click here and choose an age. At the bottom of each page there is a section on "When to be Concerned".

Will learning two languages slow my child's development?

No. It may take a bit of time for your child to sort out how they best use both languages, so it may seem that they are slower to speak, but if they understand normally, that is what is initially important.

I believe giving your child a second language is a precious gift.

Please feel free to share this ezine with family and friends.

Till next time,

Dr Maud

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