Amongst the most frequently expressed worries in different forums for parents raising bilingual children are concerns about potential delays in language development. Several research studies have found that bilingualism does not cause language delay (read more in e.g Dual Languages Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning by Paradis, Genesee & Crago, but many parents still have doubts and are worried that more than one language in the family could harm their kids’ communication abilities or even damage their success in education.
Why do parents worry?
Why are parents concerned, when facts clearly state that they should not be? Not all mums and dads have had the time or the opportunity to read up on language development in bilingual children. After all, children just learn to speak by default, yes? And even if you have read and know the facts, when it is your own child, the stakes are high and you want to feel totally sure you are doing the right thing.
Seeking advice from other parents
When a fleeting comment or a question causes a concern (“My son knew this many words at your daughter’s age”, “Does your son put two words together yet?) – what do parents do to find advice? They search on the internet and ask other parents. While I am thankful that mums and dads have this resource at their fingertips (literally), sometimes a question can open a can of worms and not all suggestions are helpful. Why? Because children are different, their environments are different, the parents are different – no two situations are the same. What is true for one child may not be at all applicable to another.
Not all professionals understand bilingualism
Thankfully the facts about bilingualism and how bilingual children’s languages develop are getting more and more widely known. However, it was only a few decades ago when speech and language therapists were taught that children with diagnosed language related issues should only speak one language and the parents were told to drop a language. We now know this is wrong advice. Read Mary Pat’s excellent article Early language development – facts and fictions for more information on language milestones, truth and myths.
All recommendations are based on averages
I understand that especially first-time parents are worried – the paediatrician mentions a certain amount of words a child should know at a certain age. Guidelines are necessary so we can keep track of a child’s progress, however, we should also remember that they are an average of several findings, all of which are classified as normal. There are huge differences between the pace of children’s linguistic development, independent of whether they are learning to speak one or more languages.
Bilingual children should be assessed in all their languages
All too often bilingual children still get assessed in only one of their languages – such tests will never give a true reflection of their real language abilities. If you are in a situation where an assessment is needed, do your homework and try to find a therapist who is experienced in dealing with bilinguals. If this is not possible, make sure discuss your family’s language situation with the therapist in advance – should you notice a negative attitude towards several languages in your family, find another therapist and recommend books such as Assessing Multilingual Children: Disentangling Bilingualism from Language Impairment (read my review here) as vital reading for them.
Whatever the difference, bilingual children catch up (and often overtake)
Bilingual children might say their first words slightly later than monolinguals, but still within the normal range. This is natural when you think of the enormous task the little brain has in making sense of more than one language! Research and the experience of many parents of multilingual children confirm that by the age of about five bilingual children are at the same level as monolingual children in their strongest languages. Of course, if a child is learning, let’s say, four or more languages at the same time, all languages will not develop at the same pace.
What we see are different ways of getting to the same language level – the monolingual standard, which has been prevailing until very recently, is only a part of the true story of children’s language development. You could compare it to a situation when you tell a group of people to be at a certain place at a certain time and when you find that everyone has arrived in time, you criticize those who took a different route than the main one.
Just like monolingual children, bilingual kids also have speech and language related problems
As parents of bilingual children we should however not ignore possible real language delays, because they do exist, just like with monolingual children, but they are not due to multilingualism in the family. Children who have a delayed language development would be delayed independent of whether they are mono- or multilingual. If you are concerned, get in touch with a specialist and ask for an assessment of your child’s linguistic abilities.
What to do if you do worry
There are certain things you can do to alleviate worries about your child’s language development:
1. Is your bilingual child’s hearing alright? – difficulties with hearing often cause issues with speech.
2. Does your toddler understand simple commands in the family languages? – if yes, this means that he or she is picking up the languages.
3. Can you see your child’s language developing, i.e. is the vocabulary increasing and the understanding growing? To help with this, keep a diary of all the words (in different languages) that your child is using. This diary will also be of great help, should you need to get in touch with a therapist.
Trust your instincts
Independent of everything said here and what others tell you, ultimately you are the person who knows your bilingual child best. If you feel that something is not right, then get in touch with a speech and language therapist who can deal with bilingual children and ask for advice and an assessment. If there is a real language related issues, the earlier it is caught, the easier it is to treat.