Before I ask for your advice, let me introduce my family and our languages to you. We are a Dutch (mum) – English (dad) family currently living in The Netherlands. We have a 5-year-old daughter and a 22-month-old son. We use an adapted version of OPOL with our children. I speak Dutch to the children when my husband is not around. We usually speak English when we are all together and my husband only speaks English to the kids. Most family and friends here speak Dutch but they usually speak English to my husband as his Dutch is almost non-existent. We feel that the kids get a good exposure to both languages.
Our eldest seems to have proven that our system works. She started speaking from a very early age and is about two years ahead of her peers with her vocabulary. She speaks both English and Dutch fluently and comfortably. I would say her vocabulary might be slightly bigger in Dutch but it’s really not an issue. When she started preschool (Dutch peuterspeelzaal) by age two, she could communicate well and speak in long sentences. The kids have been at home with me during their first two years, then starting preschool when they turn two.
Our youngest is about to start preschool but I am concerned that he does not speak at all yet. He makes plenty of noises, says mama, dada, uh oh, Ella (for his sister). He communicates well by pointing, shaking his head, etc. According to the guidelines for a monolingual Dutch child, he is delayed. I feel that he is indeed slow (and lazy) but have a sense that the two languages also add to this and that he will get there in his own time.
Before he starts preschool, could you advise me of some general guidelines for when multilingual children usually start speaking more? I want to be prepared when his teachers raise the issue as they have no experience with multilingualism (apart from our daughter several years ago).
Any thoughts would be appreciated!
thank you for your question about language development in bilingual toddlers. So your son is 22 months old and while he makes plenty of noises and seems to have some words (mama, dada, uh oh and Ella) and is communicative, you are concerned that his language may be delayed.
A few general points first. There is a lot of normal variation in early child language development in general and in bilingual children in particular. In the literature it says first words may emerge from 8- 18 months depending on where you read – that’s quite a long time frame for a baby/toddler! The average vocabulary of an 18-month-old is approximately 50 words and in your son’s case this would be across the two languages. By two years, or when the child has 50 single words, you can expect to see two word phrases emerging. For example: my ball, daddy gone etc.
It might be a good idea to actually keep a word diary of the word he is saying. And to see if you can see steady progress over time. The progress is important; possibly more important than the number of words he is starting out with. About 15% of otherwise typically developing 2 year olds are considered Late Talkers (that is they are two years old and do not have a minimal core vocabulary of 50-100 words and do not produce 2-3 word utterances). About half of these children who are considered late talkers will catch up by age three without intervention – they are called Late Bloomers. The remaining late talkers are at risk for persisting delays and can benefit from intervention. Late talkers who are at greatest risk for persisting delays tend to have problems with understanding and expression, an existing family history of language or learning disability, reduced gesture or play skills, and more frequent or lasting occurrences of glue ear.
It’s not meaningful to compare him to a monolingual Dutch speaking child as that is not comparing like with like and children’s speech and language skills tend to be distributed across the languages. And it’s not meaningful to compare him with sister either as each child’s pattern of development is unique. And it might be helpful to think of him as actually talking now. From your email, it seems he is using words although maybe not as many as you might expect for his age.
Another thing to bear in mind is that children are not lazy when it comes to language development. They are designed to acquire languages. Now, it is also worth looking at his opportunities to communicate. Sometimes we can anticipate a child’s needs so they don’t actually have to say anything to have their needs met. And sometimes older siblings can take up a lot of the conversational space.
So what can you do in the meantime? The good news is that there are lots of little things you can do daily to build his language skills. Small actions consistently taken do make a difference. You have two choices here as well. You could decide to spend 30 minutes a day focusing on talking with your toddler; just you and him together or you could build the ideas into your interactions throughout the day.
So for the 30 minutes, you could try reading with your little boy. Here are 10 ways to make the most of this time:
- Make sure you can see each other’s faces when you’re reading the book together as this makes things more interactive.
- Let the child read the book their own way. So you can bring the book out and just wait to see what he says or does and then follow what he’s showing interest in. This means letting him turn the pages too. It can be hard to wait but it’s totally worth it as the more actively involved he is, the more he’ll be inclined to want to engage with books again.
- You don’t have to read it all: you can stop and start – at this age it’s not about the story line. Actually you don’t have to read it at all! You can just have a chat about the pictures, commenting on what you can see. So if you notice him looking at a picture, you can comment, for example ‘It’s a tiger!’
- You can make it more interesting by using different voices for different characters or making animal sounds etc. You might feel a bit self-conscious at first but again, children love it!
- You can point to the pictures as you talk about them.
- You could use little figures to bring the story alive when you’re telling a story.
- It’s good to read the same book over and over – children love it although I know it can be a bit tiresome at times!
- You could make your own book – now I’ve only done this once where I drew very simple (I’m no artist!) stick figures for yet another version of the Big Bad Wolf! But you could use the pictures in junk mail to make a book of your child’s favourite things. You could even sort them by category if you wanted to sneak in some work on vocabulary so fruits, vegetables, animals, clothes and so on. And another level again would be to use different textures for a touch & feel book so you could stick in cotton wool, sandpaper, bubble wrap, double sided sticky tape, crumpled paper and so on. With this kind of book you’re sneaking in some great concepts and vocabulary – rough, smooth, soft, hard etc.
- Visit your local library – the library staff are so helpful and will give you great ideas for books for children at different ages and they have a great range of books and membership for children is free. You can let your child pick their own books from a very young age to get them actively involved.
- Another lovely activity for this quality time together is to have a bag that you can’t see through & fill it with objects – use whatever you can find lying around so for example, a spoon, cotton wool, some toilet paper, a ball, a plastic bottle, a brick and so on. Take turns closing your eyes & picking something out. Talk about how it feels while it’s still in the bag, describing it. So if it’s a metal spoon, you could talk about how it feels cold and hard. Then you guess: ‘I think it’s a spoon’ and then pull it out of the bag. Then it’s your child’s turn and so on. Once they get the hang of it, you can identify the object incorrectly which will generate more opportunities for great conversations in
For the shorter bursts of input, you can do things like talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. So when getting dressed, you name the items of clothing. If he uses one word, like sock, you expand to two words: red sock, stripy sock.
Singing is also great – it needs to be slow and you need to wait at the end of a line for him to take a turn – this video shows you how to do this.
Bilingualism doesn’t cause language delays and there are lots of factors which affect language development patterns such as the amount of input in each language, opportunities to communicate, gender, individual differences in learning styles and so on. Ages and stages are general guidelines – think 12 month-ish for first words. And the main thing is seeing steady progress. If you want a chart of approximate ages and stages, the link below is useful as a very general guide.
And here is a progress checker for checking your child’s language development. Interestingly, they use 50 words by age two as a benchmark for language development while Elisabeth Peña, a well-respected researcher in bilingualism stresses at least 25 words at age two. And Caroline Bowen suggests referral to an SLT if the child has fewer than 50 words between 18 and 24 months.
With these ideas you can create great communication opportunities
Finally, here is a recent post I wrote about early bilingual language development that might also be useful.
Hope this helps, please post any follow-up questions you may have below!
Mary-Pat O'Malley-KeighranMary-Pat is a lecturer, author, researcher, speech and language therapist and lover of all things to do with speech, language and communication. She has over 20 years’ experience of working with families and 14 years’ experience of teaching in university. Mary-Pat has done extensive research in communication: parents’ experiences of speech and language therapy, story-telling in bilingual children, how newspapers tell stories about adults with communication problems, how midwives and pregnant women talk to each other during hospital visits, and more. She is passionate about humanizing the health care and education systems by showcasing the importance of how we say what we say. She also passionate about understanding children’s perspectives in communication with adults so that we can communicate more compassionately with them. Mary-Pat is currently a lecturer in speech and language therapy at NUI Galway on the lovely west coast of Ireland and you can find her blog at Talk Nua.