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Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

Aug 312017
 

How can a single parent raise a bilingual child?

 

Question

Hey,

I decided long time ago that I would want to make my possible future children multilingual. I have lived years abroad (English was and still is my study and work language), but recently moved back to Finland. I’m a native Finnish-speaker, but don’t really use the language for anything else than communicating with other Finns. I read, dream and think in English.

Currently I’m expecting my first child and will become a single mom. This was not part of my multilingual plan 😉 However, I have done a lot of research and still would like to make my child multilingual. My plan is to speak English only (I have been teaching English in the primary school, so I’m very familiar with nursery rhymes in English, too, and I plan to attend music kindergarten in English with the baby to learn more) and let the grandparents and possible nursery take care of Finnish.

Needless to say, everybody around me is horrified. However, the grandparents are fully behind it. I know it takes more effort from a single parent to rise multilingual children, but I refuse to believe it would be impossible.

I have also read about studies where parents have one home language and speak another outside of home, which I have been also thinking. Does my plan even sound realistic or will I just end up messing up the entire kid?

And which one is a better approach… have one person to speak one language all the time (in this case mom speaking English) or change it depending on the location (mom speaking English at home and Finnish outside of home)?

Julia

Answer

Dear Julia,

thank you for your wonderful question and congratulations on expecting your first baby!

Your plan to raise a bilingual baby as a single parent is totally achievable! It’s a long-term project and does take time and a lot of effort but it’s totally worth it in the long run. It’s great that you have the support of the baby’s grandparents and what a lovely role for them to have in your baby’s life.

As for the unsupportive comments of others, best to ignore them as they’re most likely basing their opinions on a logic that is not supported by any research. It might be a good idea to keep your plan to yourself and if people ask, say something neutral like “I’ll see what feels most natural when the baby arrives” or something along those lines and move on. It’s none of their business, and you don’t need the hassle of having to defend your choices.

My first reaction on reading your question is why not speak both languages with your baby? If you feel comfortable engaging with your baby in both languages, that is. The primary thing once your baby arrives is attachment and the developing relationship with your baby. You might find that you feel more comfortable in Finnish when making soothing sounds with your baby or talking or singing with him or her.

I have a Serbian colleague at the university where I work who speaks and is literate in English to academic standards. Yet, when her son was born, Serbian was what came to her first in terms of communicating with him.  It didn’t feel natural to her to speak English. He’s 18 now and fluent in both.

English is my main language although I can manage in Irish – I could only speak English and feel comfortable when talking with my little girl. She goes to an Irish language school and is fluent according to teacher and speaks Irish most of the time when in school. And we rarely speak it at home. In fact, she tells me to stop speaking it if I try!

There are many routes to becoming bilingual. You can start with exposing your child to both languages from birth (simultaneous bilingualism) or you can start with one language first and then the second one later (sequential bilingualism). One person one language is one way to raise a bilingual child but it is not the only way nor has it been proven to be the most effective way. Or as you mentioned you can make a choice depending on the location – English at home and Finnish outside of home (time and place).

It’s important to think about what your child needs the languages for and what stage of development they are at. Very early on, language is all about forming connections, being soothed, learning to take turns, having your needs met and so on. Later, language can be used for communicating intentions such as greeting, requesting, rejecting, protesting and so on. It is also important for a person’s identity and sense of belonging and culture too.

There isn’t a wrong way here. Yes, English will require a lot of support if you want fluency because it’s not the community language but when your baby arrives, connecting with him or her is more important than what language or languages that happens in. It’s about finding a way that feels most natural to you while building both languages.

So you might start with Finnish and then introduce English very early on. Or you may feel comfortable with both from the start. It’s difficult to know this before your baby arrives. The two languages will interact with each other and your child will most likely mix the two languages, beginning a sentence in one language and ending in another. This isn’t something to worry about as it is evidence that the languages are interacting. It’s not a sign of confusion.

In early language development, children just want to get their message across so they will often pick the first word that comes in order to communicate successfully. And they know from very early on who speaks what language or languages and where it’s acceptable to mix and where it is not.

What is important, whatever you decide to do is to provide your baby with high quality language input and opportunities to use both languages. That’s how both languages develop. Lots of talking with your baby, describing what’s going on around him or her. Describing what she or he is looking at. Naming their body parts when you’re washing. Naming clothes when you’re dressing them or getting them ready for bed.

Check this short video I made on how to be a tuned in communicator with your baby. Here’s another one on how to be a good language model for your child, no matter what language is being spoken. Singing with your baby is also a great way to build language and encourage them to take turns. Here is another very short video on how to sing with your baby in a way that supports their language development.

Wishing you all the best with this chapter of your life and every success on your bilingual journey with your baby.

Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
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Aug 132017
 

How to motivate a school-aged child to speak the family's minority language?

 

Question

Hi,

I have an 8-year-old son who had speech problems when he was little. He did not really start talking until maybe two. I was forced to choose a language for his speech therapy classes, I chose English.

My problem now is that he understands Spanish but does not speak it at all. I try at home to talk only in Spanish to him but I somehow always revert to English. My husband only speaks Spanish to him but that hasn’t helped either. He always answers his dad in English.

What can I do to help him start speaking Spanish?
Nidya

Answer

Dear Nidya,

thanks for your question about supporting your child’s bilingual language development. Unfortunately, it’s still very common for there to be a language mismatch between the therapist and the family and all too common for the therapy to be conducted in the language of the therapist.

Bilingual children need bilingual intervention as home languages are clearly very important for family relations, identity, and so on. They are also vulnerable to loss if not intensively supported. For other families who might be embarking on speech and language therapy. Here is a blog post with 12 tips for handling being told to drop a language by a health care professional.

At the moment, your son’s understanding of Spanish is good and that’s a great place to be in. He has a solid foundation in the language. I’m going to presume he goes to a school where English is the language of education and therefore of his peers. It’s not unusual then that he would speak English more than Spanish. It’s important to remember that bilingual children vary a lot in their language use – Colin Baker who has written extensively on the topic, talks about it being like the moon – waxing and waning. Or being like a garden – you do all the preparation work: the digging, planting, watering, but you can’t know for certain what will grow and thrive or what weeds will pop up unexpectedly. It takes a long time and can be very frustrating at times!

This may be one of the hardest things to accept about raising a bilingual child – you can’t make them speak the home language(s). However, you can do a lot of things yourself to ensure that the conditions are the best they can be for supporting receptive bilingualism (understanding) at least and then your son is free to speak it when he chooses. It’s important to stay light about it as much as you can as pressure can be off-putting. You don’t want it to become a battle or source of stress.

You say that you find yourself reverting to English. How about putting your focus on sticking with Spanish? Developing your awareness of when you find yourself switching to English and then committing to switching to Spanish. No need to comment or remark on it. Just make the switch.

I don’t know where you live but language and culture go hand in hand, so if you could spark his interest in some aspect of your culture that would be a route into speaking Spanish. Are there are local festivals or cultural events that you could attend?

What kinds of things do you like doing together? Cooking together would be a fun way of supporting Spanish – choose recipes in Spanish and favourite dishes and make the dish together while you speak Spanish. Or going to buy the ingredients together. You know your child best, so you’ll need to spend a little time thinking of activities or situations that might hook his interest and motivate him to start speaking.

Translation activities where you talk about how you say something in Spanish and English and pointing out similarities and differences is very good for language development as it builds what is called metalinguistic awareness – being able to talk about language using language. For example, I have a colleague who is Serbian. I speak Irish. The word for goodbye in Irish means elephant in Serbian and we always laugh about that. You could talk about how it’s easier to learn to read in Spanish because the spelling is more phonetic and there aren’t as many irregularities as in English. You could put some sentences into Google Translate and see what it churns out and have a laugh about the silly translations it produces.

How about a treasure hunt where the clues are in Spanish? This way he gets to read in Spanish and will most likely read the clues aloud in Spanish and you can have discussions about what they might mean.

Or you could do a Google search for riddles in Spanish and have a contest to see who can guess the answers quickest.

Of course, he may now be out of practice and a little self-conscious about speaking Spanish so it will take some time for him to start to use it. Once this happens, you could try things like taking turns choosing what language to speak at dinner time or on an outing together. You can decide to do this for five minutes to start and then extend it as he gets more confident.

If you want to try some sneakier tactics, you could start by being slower to respond to him when he speaks English – a little like being slightly hearing impaired when you hear English but not when you hear Spanish.

The most important thing is to keep going and not give up – it will be worth it in the long term.

Good luck with it all!

Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
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Jun 012017
 

How is a baby’s language development impacted by a nanny’s language and accent?

 

Question

Hello

We are a Greek family living in Lausanne, Switzerland. We speak Greek at home and French at work. When my wife will return to work after her maternity leave, our daughter will be 8 months old.

We plan to hire a full-time nanny until our daughter will be 18-20 months old and afterwards continue with public daycare (where French is obviously spoken). One of our best nanny-candidates is of Spanish origin, and speaks French with a very strong Spanish accent. I would like to ask you:

1. Can the sudden exposure of an 8-month-old infant (who is used to hearing only the parents’ mother tongue) to a foreign language harm her development of the mother tongue? Could this perhaps even lead to a slower language development?

2. We would like our daughter to acquire an almost native French accent, as she is born here and will go to French speaking school. Is it a problem that the nanny for this limited, but crucial time, is not a native speaker?

Thank you very much. I am looking forward to your advice.
Costas

Answer

Dear Costas,

thank you for your questions about your daughter’s language development.

Your home language with your baby is Greek and the community language is French. You are planning to hire a full-time nanny from when your daughter is 18-20 months old. Then she will attend public day care where French is the language. One of your best nanny candidates speaks Spanish as a native language and French with a very strong Spanish accent.

1. You would like to know if sudden exposure of an 8-month-old to an unfamiliar language will harm development of her mother tongue. The simple answer to this question is no, it will not harm development of her mother tongue. Of course it will mean she has less exposure to Greek but it is still the language of your home and fundamental to your emotional connection with your daughter and to her connection with extended family. Children are wired to acquire languages and they don’t approach language acquisition like we might think they do. Children acquire languages unconsciously through quality input from the significant people in their environment and through opportunities to use the languages.

You also wonder if the acquisition of a second language at this point will lead to slower language development. The consensus in the research is that acquiring a second language does not cause any delays in a child’s language development. It is also important to remember that there is a lot of individual variation in children’s language development. Depending on where you read about the topic, first words can appear anywhere between 8 and 15 months – that is a long time frame!

The main thing for your daughter’s language development is high quality input from the people important to her and lots of opportunities to use the language and communication skills that she is developing. Here’s a little video I’ve made on tuned in communication with babies and infants: Tuned in Communication. Here’s another one on reading to your baby: Reading to your Baby, and another one on how to sing to your baby to encourage language and communication: Singing with your Baby.

2. Your next question is about the impact of the nanny’s strong Spanish accent when speaking French on your child’s speech development when it comes to French. This is not so easy a question to answer. I’ve done a literature search and there is very little recent work on this topic that I could find. I asked a colleague of mine who has done a lot of research in the area of speaking more than one language. He said that what would most likely happen is that initially, your daughter’s accent would be close to that of the nanny. Then, as she spends more time with her peers, that her accent would become more like theirs. We do tend to accommodate to the speech and language of those around us. It’s not a problem that the nanny is not a native French speaker at this time.

It’s also important that the nanny communicates with your daughter in the language she feels most comfortable in. Especially with young infants where we do a lot of vocal play and ‘baby-talk’, it needs to feel right to the adult. I could only do this in English with my little girl, not in Irish although I do speak it. For the nanny, this may be Spanish and she might even find herself speaking it in spite of her intention to speak French. At this early stage of development, language and communication are about ways of engaging with an infant, of developing a bond with them and it needs to feel natural to the adult speaker – so the nanny could speak Spanish. Then as your daughter gets older, you could begin to introduce her to French which she will also encounter in day care and pre-school. And of course, language is only one of the factors you are considering when finding someone to look after your little girl.

Kind regards

Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
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Feb 232017
 

Is it normal for a bilingual toddler to go silent?

 

Question

Hello!

My husband and I are Spanish living in Ireland. My toddler just is two years of age and goes to crèche three days a week three hours per day. We use Spanish all the time with him and let English language to come bit by bit trough his experiences in crèche or other English environments, also he listens to us talking in English with other people or some cartoons on television.

In the crèche he started to babble a bit, in Spanish and some invention he sometimes does. Recently when I picked him up the carer told me he has been three days very quiet and when he was painting with one of the carers trying to ask him questions and he only looked and smiled.

Is this normal when a baby is listening to two different languages? At home he does talk and he knows a few words in English, I really think he does understand when someone asks him questions in English, like “how are you?” etc, things that he can hear in the crèche all the time, but not sure what I should do if I should do something. Also, there is a new-born in the house.

Thank you would appreciate advice.
Virginia

Answer

Hi Virginia,

Thanks for your question. The main language of your home is Spanish, and your little boy who is two is exposed to English in his crèche for 9 hours a week. He also hears English from cartoons and from overhearing you talking with other people. Congratulations on your new baby too – I’m sure that’s keeping you busy! Now you’re a little unsure about bilingual toddler’s language development.

You’re right that there are two things to think about here: his understanding of language: things like following instructions, knowing colours, and so on. Then there is expression: what he is saying – single words or two words together. You don’t say how close to two years he is – has he just turned two or is he closer to three? That would make a difference in terms of what to expect.

It’s important to remember that children vary quite a lot in their early language development. When we talk about ages and stages of development, it’s best to think in general terms – give or take a few months. As your child is bilingual, it’s also important to remember that no two children’s language inputs are the same so comparisons are not that helpful. What you do want to see is progress in his language development. You should expect to see him learning and using new words regularly.

For understanding language, between 2-3 years of age, here are some general things to expect:

  • Following instructions with two parts like “Get your trousers and put them in the basket”
  • Understanding hot vs cold or stop vs go or in and on, nice and yucky
  • When they’re three years old and up to four, they begin to understand questions like who?, what? and where?

For expressive language, generally, first words appear at about 12-months (give or a take a few months). At 18 months, 50 words is about average and by two years, several hundred words and many two-word combinations like doggy sit, my car. Vocabulary growth in the second year is explosive. Lots of new words coming regularly. They usually use one, two, or three words together, and family members can usually understand them.

By age three, children are expected to combine four or more words in sentences.

How would you know if his language development is delayed?

This is not always an easy question to answer at this age. About 15% of otherwise typically developing 2-year-olds are considered Late Talkers (two years old and do not have a minimal core vocabulary of 50-100 words and do not produce 2-3 word utterances.) You need 50 words approximately before you can start combining them into phrases. About half of the children considered late talkers will catch up by age of 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 comprehension 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.

As I said, what’s important is that you see steady progress in your child’s language development. You can keep a record of progress by just writing down what he says over a period of weeks/months and chart the progress that way.

If you want a chart of approximate ages and stages, this link is useful as a very general guide.

And here is a progress checker for checking your child’s language development. Interestingly, they use 25 words by age of two as a benchmark for language development while Elisabeth Peña, a well-respected researcher in bilingualism stresses at least 25 words at age two. Caroline Bowen suggests referral to an SLT (speech and language therapy) if the child has fewer than 50 words between 18 and 24 months.

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. I would continue to speak to him in Spanish as you are doing. The English will come with time and is not vulnerable as it is the majority language.

Very often, health care professionals and educators tell parents to drop their language and speak English. This is the wrong advice and not supported by the research. But it is still very common to hear – ignore it! Here are a couple of other posts to support you, should this happen:
What to say when the doctor gets it wrong
The 3 times you should definitely ignore your doctor 

What can you do to help his language development along?

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 little boy; just you and him together. The other option is to build the ideas into your interactions throughout the day. Whatever works for you, but it is important to focus on building his language.

For the 30 minutes, you could try reading with your little boy. Here are 10 ways to make the most of this time:

  1. Make sure you can see each other’s faces when you’re reading the book together as this makes things more interactive.
  2. Let him read the book his own way. 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.
  3. 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. If you notice him looking at a picture, you can comment, for example “It’s Peppa!”
  4. 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!
  5. You can point to the pictures as you talk about them.
  6. You could use little figures to bring the story alive when you’re telling a story.
  7. 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!
  8. You could make your own book – I have 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 his 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 and 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 books you’re sneaking in some great concepts and vocabulary – rough, smooth, soft, hard etc.
  9. 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.
  10. Another lovely activity for this quality time together is to have a bag that you can’t see through and 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 and picking something out. Talk about how it feels while it’s still in the bag, describing it. 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.

I have two short videos on my YouTube channel that will also help build his language skills, which you can find here and here.

For the shorter bursts of input, you can do things like talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. 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. Don’t ask him questions. Instead, talk about what he is looking at or what he is doing.

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.

In addition, you can create great communication opportunities with these ideas.

One last thing to consider is that questions are not the best way to get a conversation going with a toddler. Commenting on what they are doing and then waiting for them to take a turn is much more natural and encouraging.

If you want to talk about his language development some more, please comment below or email me at marypat [at] talknua [dot] com. There are checklists we can fill out to assess his language at this age.

All the best!
Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
 

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Feb 052017
 

How to reintroduce a minority language to a speech-delayed child and a younger sibling?

 

Question

Hello,

I am German and, my now, ex-husband is English/Australian. The kids spend half of the week with him and the other half with me. I used to talk German to my son from birth onward, but when he was diagnosed with a speech delay which was luckily very early, as I could see that his speech and sound making was not developing age appropriate, I got advised to only speak English with him so he can catch up.

The cause of the speech delay are ongoing ear issues. He also had grommets for a while and still has trouble with his left ear. We went to speech pathology and he started kindergarten and will start pre-primary next year, in a language development centre. He just turned five and made very good progress, but still needs to catch up a little.

I used to talk German with him till he was about two and a half and got then advised from two speech pathologists to only speak English with him so he is able to speak at least one language safely and maybe later, when he is speaking fluently, go back and start with German again. Due to that we spoke English all the time and his sister, three years old, has never heard much German.

I would like to start speaking more German again – at least when it’s just the three of us, as I like them both to grow up bilingual. My son still understands German but can’t speak, his little sister has unfortunately no understanding.

I don’t know how to go about it so she is involved when we talk, but without using English. As she is three already will she pick it up naturally, particularly as it is the minority language? I’m concerned that she will just go quiet and upset. I did try a few times but I had to explain her in English as she didn’t know what her brother and I were talking about, and said she doesn’t like it.

Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you in advance.

Kind regards
Sabine

Answer

Hi Sabine

thanks for your question and I am delighted to read that your little boy is making such good progress.

First of all, just to reassure you that your little boy can be bilingual. There is no need to drop a language. It’s also great that his understanding of German is good. It’s understandable too why your little girl might get upset when she doesn’t understand what is being said as she may feel excluded. And if English has been the primary language of your relationship, then that is the language she associates most with you.

I would suggest to start out with you spending some time with each child individually where you speak German. The key here is that their language level in German is different, so the input from you needs to be at their level. Reading together with your little boy is a natural way of having one language input. Or watching cartoons together in German and then having conversations about what happened and what you thought about the different characters. I have a free e-book called 25 Ways to Make them Love your Language – if you email me at marypat[at]talknua[dot]com I will send it to you. It has lots of activities for encouraging development of the minority language in a fun way. How about some German comics or games that he might enjoy? Also, opportunities to use German with family members or on holidays.

And for your little girl, how about watching some songs in German and learning one that she likes together? It’s important to sing the song slowly and then as she gets used to it, you can sing a line and leave a space for her to fill in the word. Here is an example of how to do it.

Again, reading books together is a lovely way to spend quality time together while using German – you could start with simple books with photos of common objects around the house and so on in order to build her vocabulary.

It is also natural for children’s attitudes to their languages to vary. My little girl goes to an Irish language school and when I speak Irish to her at home, she tells me to stop! I just say something like “You don’t like me speaking Irish, huh?” then I switch back to English and try again later. Both of your children might well go through phases where they reject the minority language. And of course, the minority language is vulnerable to loss. However, the main thing is not to give up – it’s a long-term project and even if they don’t use it, you can develop their comprehension by speaking to them in German. I would focus on my own language use and if they respond in English, I would just respond in German. You can’t make them speak it; you really only have control over what language or languages you choose to speak to them.

Kind regards
Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
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Aug 252016
 

Bilingual 3-year-old does not speak – what to do?

 

Question

Dear Coaches,

I’m a Chinese mum and our family lives in China. I majored in TESOL and was obsessed in bilingualism. So my hubby and I always talk to my daughter in English and the others talk to her in Chinese. Now she’s 3 and she cannot talk, at all. She can understand Chinese and English, English much better, but she never speaks. Sometimes she mutters alien languages which I just fail to understand. So far, she can pronounce ‘ma-ma’ (but not directly to me), ‘apple’ (occurs several times) ‘water'(occurs several times),’banana'(occurs several times). That’s all.

So far I do not see any signs that she wants to talk or communicate. She only comes to us when she wants something. I think that even bilingual kid should talk by now. I tried to give her the favourite food only after she said something. She would cry and cry and would not give in. Does this belong to receptive bilingualism?

She starts kindergarten already and she’s the only one who cannot talk. Since she cannot talk, she cannot behave herself. She won’t listen. She only respond to ‘sit down’ ‘pee’, etc. and other stuff when she wants. I am sooo worried. At first I was confident to be persistent but now they all suggest that I go to some therapy. To be honest, I don’t think our therapist, not linguist, is capable of helping. Any advice? Please!!

I appreciate your time and help!
Warmice

Answer

Dear Warmice,

The first thing I would recommend is thinking about your daughter in terms of communication as well as speech and language. By this I mean, what does she communicate about and how does she communicate about it? It would be useful to keep a communication and speech and language diary to really get specific about the details of her communication. This is a very useful exercise because not only does it give very detailed information about her communication but it also develops your observation of more subtle ways that she communicates with you for example, she might stop moving or look towards you or her facial expression might change subtly or she might make some sounds.

So, you can look at when she communicates by using a table like this:

Time Child’s weekday activities Who is directly involved? Who else is around?
7.00-9.00
9.00-11.00
etc
Child’s weekend activities

 

Next you can look at how and why she communicates and get very specific here about the how. Does she cry, smile, make sounds, turn away, reach, shake her head, occasionally use single words and so on – make your list as detailed as you can. Write down what you think the sounds are if they are speech sounds.

Then the why she communicates – also called communicative intentions or functions. These are:

  • To direct attention to herself, how does she get your attention?
  • To direct attention to an object/event/or other people. (Say you’re outside and she sees something interesting, what would she do?)
  • To request objects – what does she do if she sees something that she wants and it is out of reach?
  • To request actions – how does she let you know that she wants to be picked up?
  • Request for assistance – if she needs your help with something, how does she let you know?
  • If you were doing something with her that she is enjoying and you stopped, how would she let you know that she wanted you to do it again?
  • Rejecting: if you give her some food that she doesn’t want, what would she usually do?
  • Greeting: if a familiar person comes to your home, how does she usually react? (Examples: takes no notice, looks at their face, smiles). What does she do when someone is leaving?
  • Self-expression and self-assertion: If she is enjoying something, how does she show it? If she is upset or hurt about something, how does she show that? If you’re trying to help her do something like get dressed and she wants to do it herself, how does she let you know?
  • Naming: When she sees something that she recognises, how does she give it a name?
  • Commenting: If you’re putting things away and she sees something she is interested in what would she do/say?
  • If she notices that something has gone from where she would expect it to be, what would she do/say?
  • Giving Information: if something happened while you weren’t around (like something getting broken) how would she let you know about it?
Communicative intention –
Why she communicates
 How she communicates

 

You also mention that you don’t see any signs that she wants to talk or communicate. This is where close observation is very helpful because it will help you tune in to any opportunities for communication to happen. With the example you gave of her favourite food, she was communicating very clearly here through her crying and not giving in to your agenda. Below are some ideas for providing meaningful opportunities for her. The purposes of these suggestions are to increase her desire to communicate, to make communication fun, to help her realise the power of communication, and to increase her spontaneous use of language. If you need to prompt her, then use nonverbal behaviours like exaggerated leaning in or looking at her or shoulder shrugs to communicate a lack of understanding. If that doesn’t work, you can give a partial verbal prompt , such as “I want . . .” Avoid asking direct questions such as “What do you want?” Just pick the ideas that feel right to you – you don’t have to do them all and don’t do them to the point where they cause unnecessary distress for her.

  • Eat a food that she likes in front of her without offering any to her. Wait and see what she does.
  • Start a wind-up toy, let it run down, then hand it to her. Wait.
  • Hand her several blocks, one by one, to drop in a can, then give her a small toy to drop in. Wait expectantly
  • Start a familiar game, play it until she shows interest, then wait. Look at her and give a prompt such as asking “What do you want?”
  • Open a bottle of bubbles, blow some with the wand, then close the bottle tightly and hand it to her.
  • Blow up a balloon and then let the air out. Hand the deflated balloon to her.
  • Put a food that she doesn’t like near her mouth.
  • Put a favourite toy or food in a clear container lid on it that she can’t open. Hand her the container and wait.
  • Take her hand and put it in a cold, wet, or sticky substance such as pudding or water.
  • Roll a ball to her. After taking many turns rolling the ball back and forth, replace the ball with a car or other toy with wheels.
  • Put a toy that makes noise in a clear plastic bag. Shake the bag and hold it up to her.
  • Bring her a new toy, or initiate a silly or unusual event (wear a bag on your head). Wait for her to do something. When she does, expand on what she says or say it as she would if she could (“I have something silly on my head!”)
  • Pay less attention than usual to her; back away or turn your back during a game you are playing. Wait for her to try to get your attention.
  • Let her explore the room for a few minutes. Wait for her to direct your attention to an object she becomes interested in.
  • Turn on some fast or fun music or a video with noise or talking on it, then turn it off. Wait for her to signal for you to turn it on.

I really like the Hanen Centre’s ideas for encouraging communication, but you need to make sure that the ideas fit in with your cultural expectations about interaction and play. Most of the suggestions out there are based on Western styles of communication and they may not be appropriate for your family. But what they would have in common is the aim to teach your child.

Be reassured that the issues with her communication are not caused by her being bilingual. And if she needs to be bilingual to thrive in her environment then that is what she needs.

As for communicating in preschool – you could do the same observations to see precisely how is she communicating there? What does she like to communicate about and who does she like communicating with? Are there times when she is more interested in communicating than others? How is she having her needs met? Is the environment communication friendly? For example, are there pictures that she can point to so that she can indicate what she wants to do? Maybe the teachers could try some of the suggestions above for engaging her in interaction.

It’s also a good idea to keep your own language use fairly simple with her and if she uses one word, then you expand upon what she says. Reading together is another great activity for building language and communication skills. Here are some tips for how to do this most effectively. I also have two short videos on my YouTube channel that will also help build your child’s language skills, you can find them here and here.

It does seem to me that she needs to be assessed by a speech and language therapist/pathologist who can help you formulate goals to progress her speech, language, and communication.

I hope these ideas help – be sure and let me know how you get on in the comments below.

Kind regards,
Mary Pat


Sources:

  • Dewart and Summers (1995) The Pragmatics Profile of Everyday Communication in Pre-School Children. Nfer-Nelson.
  • Pepper and Weitzman (2004) It takes two to talk: a practical guide for parents of children with language delays. Canada: The Hanen Programme.
  • Wetherby and Prizant (1989) The expression of communicative intent: assessment guidelines. Seminars in Speech and Language 10 (1): 77-91.


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
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Jun 022016
 

Q&A: What are the milestones of normal language development for a bilingual 2-year-old?

Question

Hi,

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!

Kindest regards,
Joanie

Answer

Hello Joanie,

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:

  1. Make sure you can see each other’s faces when you’re reading the book together as this makes things more interactive.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!’
  4. 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!
  5. You can point to the pictures as you talk about them.
  6. You could use little figures to bring the story alive when you’re telling a story.
  7. 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!
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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

I have two short videos on my YouTube channel that will also help build your child’s language skills, you can find them here and here.

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!

Kind regards,
Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
 

 

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May 222016
 

Can learning difficulties be due to bilingualism and how to assess this?

Question

Hello

I am a school psychologist who has been asked to evaluate a student for special services that is also considered to be English Language Learner (ELL). He is currently six years of age. The records indicate that the primary language of the home is Spanish, both parents were born in Puerto Rico and speak fluent Spanish. The parents report that the child speaks English more than Spanish.

When this child was previously evaluated for special education it was determined that his academic learning issues were due to his being bilingual, despite the fact that he spoke and comprehended little Spanish. He has again been referred for a special education evaluation because he is making extremely poor academic progress.

So I have questions about when is it ELL and when is it a learning disability. This has been an ongoing question for years. The child currently does not appear to comprehend Spanish. He says his parents speak to him in Spanish and he doesn’t understand what they say. I asked a few simple questions in my limited Spanish and he didn’t have a clue what I was asking.

In English his spoken language is excellent, however, his ability to recognize and comprehend sounds needed for reading is very poor. He appears to mishear sounds and has little sound/symbol correspondence. His math skills are age appropriate. What is the best way to determine if it is an ELL issue?

I don’t want to discount the possibility that his learning concerns are related to ELL and I also don’t want to discount that his lack of academic progress is related to a learning disability. Right now it appears to be very much related to phonological processing. This young man has been receiving ELL support since he entered school and well as extra academic support for learning to read.

Any assistance you can provide would be appreciated.
Raniece

Answer

Hi Raniece,

thank you for your question. This is a complex topic and there is no easy or clear answer I’m afraid. First of all, bilingualism does not cause language or learning issues. The diagnostic concern here is to distinguish difference due to acquiring English as an additional language from language disorder and for this you need a speech and language pathologist (SLP) on board. There is a test for Spanish–English bilingual children that an SLP could administer. BESA assesses a range of language features in Spanish-English bilingual children up to age 6 years and 11 months.

There’s also an important distinction for children who are second language learners. Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS includes things like accent, oral fluency, and more subtle things like knowing when to use formal or informal forms. Research shows that children who start learning a second language (L2) after starting school can develop a good level of fluency in everyday conversation in 2 years. For getting to grips with the more formal language needed in school (CALP), it can take between 5 and 7 years for a child to ‘catch up’ with average monolingual children. These skills include those closely related to developing literacy (reading and writing) in both languages.

So this little boy is most likely a sequential bilingual child. Spanish being the language of the home and English being the language of education and at least some peer relations for him. There is another issue too though and that is of his home culture and the dominant culture of the education system of your country. In most cases, bilingualism is not the cause of underachievement in the education system. Colin Baker (I’d highly recommend his book: Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (Parents’ and Teachers’ Guides)) makes some interesting points that are worth considering:

Firstly, expecting a fast conversion to the majority language by only using the majority language in the education system, Baker says, may do more harm than good because it tends to ignore the child’s skills in the home language and for bilingual children, their skills tend to be distributed across the languages. So some things will be easier in Spanish and other things will be easier in English. So I’d be curious to know how this boy’s achievements are being measured – in both languages. As for his literacy, I’d also be curious as to support for literacy at home, since lack of home literacy support may be a factor in underachievement. The mother’s educational experience and her level of English proficiency may also affect his language ability.

Secondly is the level of English used in the curriculum may also cause the child to show underachievement. More English lessons may not be the answer. How about allowing him to operate in Spanish in the curriculum? Lack of exposure to the majority language is not the correct explanation for underachievement says Baker.

Thirdly, is the system of schooling: does it support the minority language or try to get English established as soon as possible? Is English the only medium of instruction? Attributes that may affect quality of education for language minority children include: the supply, ethnic origins, and bilingualism of teachers, balance of language minority and language majority students in the class room, use and sequencing of the two languages across the curriculum over different grades and reward systems for enriching the minority language and culture. An alternative view is that the school system should be flexible enough to incorporate the home language and culture for example, by including parents in the running of the school as partners and participants in their child’s education.

Fourth, often part of the explanation lies in factors outside the child, for example, socio-economic factors with immigrant children living in either urban poverty or rural isolation.

And as this child’s first language is Puerto Rican Spanish, any attempts to asses him in that language would require a Puerto Rican Spanish interpreter. And he would need to be assessed in both languages. Standardized norm referenced tests are used most frequently, but are usually not standardized on bilingual populations and are often used with a disclaimer that the norms may not be applicable to a particular individual for whom English may be a second or additional language. Also important too, though, is the recognition that performance on these kinds of tests are dependent on cultural familiarity with the materials. The instructions may not be perfectly understood or may require the child to carry out an unfamiliar task. In particular, vocabulary and story-telling skills are linked to a child’s prior experiences, leading to test scores reflecting life experiences and socio-economic status rather than language ability. But BESA mentioned above is designed for clients like this little boy.

In relation to testing, here are some other ideas from the literature:

Test beyond the ceiling and below the basal. Differences within tasks across languages may be caused by differences in the difficulty of items for each language. Children who speak languages other than English may not establish a basal at the expected level or may reach a ceiling sooner than expected, yielding low scores that are not representative of their knowledge. Testing a larger number of items will inform you of what concepts the child knows and which are more unfamiliar.

You can use what’s called conceptual scoring where you credit vocabulary items irrespective of the language in which they are produced. In cases where the child produces an item in both languages, they are credited only once.

The bottom line? Bilingual children need to be assessed in all the languages they use and in each of their interaction contexts (home, school, playground), involving a bilingual co-worker where necessary.

Hope this helps – please comment and ask any follow-up questions below.

Kind regards
Mary-Pat



Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

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.
 

 

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