Feb 192015



I have an 18-month-old. I speak only English to him. My husband spoke English and Spanish to him for the first 15 months and then decided to speak solely Spanish to him. He has been speaking to him only in Spanish since then. He started saying his first words around 11 months and had a vocabulary of approx 17 words. About 2 months ago he completely stopped speaking. He uses lots of gestures and “baby jabbers” but does not say any actual words. He has perfect hearing (he has been tested) and understands what we are saying based on his actions/reactions. Can you explain why this is happening or if this is normal?

Thank you,


Dear Heather

First of all, I would like to reassure you that what your son is going through is called the “nonverbal period” or “silent period”. This nonverbal period is a frequent and normal stage of second language acquisition in young children and it typically starts when children realize that their home language is not understood at school and their second language skills are insufficient or absent. You say that he perfectly understands what you are saying and that he is interacting with you (and others?) non-verbally.

I have some questions, if you don’t mind. When a child turns silent there is usually some kind of trigger. It can be also one that seems minor to parents but is major for the child. – You don’t mention if your son went through a major change during the last three months? Or did anything else happen: did you move country, or is your son attending daycare (English or Spanish)? Did he stop talking both languages, English and Spanish at the same time?

Studies observe that the nonverbal period is typically 1) shorter than 6 months, 2) common in 3-8 year olds and 3) longer in the younger child (cfr. Tabors PO. One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Brookes; 1997.)

During this time your son needs time to acclimatise to the new context and to begin to tune into the sounds of Spanish and English. He may start rehearsing the language(s) silently to himself and practice “private speech”. You would notice this when he plays by himself and lets toys talk. He is probably processing the language internally and building up confidence to try out the language before “going public” again.

What you and your husband (and everyone interacting with him) can do, is to reassure and encourage him by making him feel accepted member of the group/family/society.
I know that the pressure from society, family, friends, teachers (?) can be very hard on you and your son, but I really suggest that you entirely focus on his needs now. Let him decide when he wants to interact with you. Here are some suggestions about what you can do:

1. Continue talking even when he does not respond verbally.
2. Try to include him in small groups (1-2) with other children who speak the same language.
3. Use varied questions, especially open questions, where he can’t only nodd or shake his head.
4. Include other children as the focus in the conversation.
5. Use the first language.
6. Accept non-verbal responses.
7. Praise minimal efforts, but not in an exaggerated way. If he says something or tries to say something, you can praise with a smile or by repeating what he said. This will comfort him.
8. You can try to sing more songs with him. Through music, rythm, the body can relax and if he may try to sing the tune too.
9. The practice through role play can be beneficial. too: let him choose a puppet or a toy and try to let him talk through it.

I’d be very glad if you could tell me more about the situation in the last three months and I’m really interested on maintaining this conversation.

With very kind regards and the best wishes,


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