Early Bilingual Language Development: Facts and Fictions [guest post]

by | Jan 27, 2016 | Babies, Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Guest post, Language development, Myths, Practical advice, Toddlers | 5 comments

Mary Pat O'Malley-KeighranI am delighted to introduce you to today’s guest blogger, Dr. Mary-Pat O’Malley-Keighran. She 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 of teaching speech and language students. In her own words: “I’m all about how we say what we say and how that makes us feel.” You can get in touch with Pat through her Facebook page or website, Talk Nua, where you can also sign up for her fortnightly communication tips and activities. Who better to tell us about the language development of bilingual kids? The page is yours, Pat!

Early Bilingual Language Development: Facts and Fictions Bilingual parents often worry that raising a bilingual child will cause a language delay. It seems lots of people have opinions about this, many of them based on faulty information (fiction)! So no matter what other well-meaning people may tell you (professionals included), please be reassured by the fact that more than half of the world’s population speak more than one language (fact). Bilingual language development is what happens for most of the world. Bilingualism definitely does not cause language delay – ever (fact)!

If children need to speak more than one language because of the context they live in (their family, community, religion, education etc.), then they need to be bilingual in order to have a chance at participating meaningfully in society (fact). So you should never believe anyone who tells you to drop a language. The fact is that dropping a language does more harm than good and that suggestion is not supported in the research.

Factors affecting language development

Many factors come into play in bilingual language development making it very diverse. Things like the age at which the child is exposed to consistent input in the languages: both languages from birth or one language from birth and a second language at 3, or 5 or 9 years of age for example. The contexts where language experiences happen also vary: at home, in school, what they watch on television or YouTube, with their friends. The prestige associated with the languages also varies as do the types of languages being learned. So there are Romance languages like Spanish, Italian, French that share a similar writing system. Then there are languages such as Japanese which does not have the same writing system as English for example.

The purposes of the languages vary, too, from needing them for interacting with family members to school teachers and peers. It is also important to remember that the timing or age of acquisition of two different languages does not in and of itself determine the eventual language skill of the child (fact). Other factors that affect all children acquiring language: maternal level of education, family income levels, and levels of literacy at home.

Language milestones

Another fiction is that children who are acquiring two languages at the same time will be slower to use first words and then catch up. Once again, not true (fiction)! The research shows that learning two languages at the same time does not cause even a temporary delay in the achievement of early language milestones.

Parents also often wonder ‘Is my child late in talking?’ This is not always an easy question to answer for definite because bilingual language development is affected by all the factors mentioned earlier and no two situations are identical.

In general, first words appear at about the 12-month mark (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.

Late talkers

Multilingual ParentingAbout 15% of otherwise typically developing 2-year-olds do not do this – they 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.

What’s important is that you see steady progress in the child’s language development. You can keep a record of progress by just noting down what they say over a period of weeks/months and chart the progress that way.

When to see a speech and language therapist?

Now, I know I am a speech and language therapist and possibly biased, but I do think it is better to be safe than sorry. So if your toddler has less than 50 words between the ages of 18 and 24 months, I would recommend at least contacting a speech and language therapist to discuss your child’s language development. Most parents have a good sense of how things are going with their child’s development.

Another fiction is that you must wait until a child is older to assess their speech, language, and communication. Children can be assessed from a very early age – as young at 8 months (fact). Speech and language therapists have many tools to assess early communication. So if you’re worried, don’t wait because you think they are too young to be assessed.

Finally a fiction I am not proud of, but am committed to changing: problems with professionals! In one international study, 89% of speech and language therapists recommended dropping a language. This is the wrong advice! 87% of SLPs provided therapy in only one language (their own). But bilingual children need bilingual intervention (fact)

Let’s get talking…

– Elin Thordardottir (2010) Towards Evidence Based practice in language intervention for bilingual children – this is an article in the Journal of Communication Disorders.
– Kathryn Kohnert (2013) Language Disorders in Bilingual Children and Adults. Oxford: Plural Publishing
– Jordann, H. (2008) Clinical intervention for bilingual children: An International Survey. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopedia 60 97-105

THANK YOU, Pat – there is so much information and many useful hints in your post, which I know the readers of my site will truly appreciate!

Never miss a post! Sign up to the Multilingual Parenting newsletter and I will send you a recap of the week’s posts every Sunday. Every second week you will receive a more extensive issue with links to research articles and interesting posts from other writers, as well as handy tips and ideas! Want to read more like this? My book Bringing up a Bilingual Child is available on Amazon and in well-stocked bookshops. Do you have a specific question? You can send it to our team of Family Language Coaches and we will reply in a Q&A (questions are answered in order of arrival). If you are interested in tailor-made family language coaching, please, contact me and I will send you a proposal.


  1. Rania

    Thanks for this. I have a child with language delay and from all the intervention I sought for him I was always told that learning 3 languages simultaneously is never cause for delay. He still struggles with language at 4 years and 3 months of age. His treatment lasted about a year between private and government funded programs and has made progress. It will restart in the summer and then the school should be taking over as that’s how it runs here in our area. He is still behind his classmates and often chooses to opt for sounds or 1 word sentences rather than employ what he learned. We are constantly reminding him utilising the tactics we were given to prompt him to apply his words and construct sentences. He is much better now than where he was a year or 2 ago but he still has a long way. It was a struggle at the beginning of the school year but it seems that the teachers are now able to handle his situation and work around it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Rita

      Hi Rania,

      thank you for sharing your family’s story! I am glad that you were given the right advice and were not made to feel that the many languages would have caused the issues. Fantastic that you have received help and that your son is progressing – wishing you all the best for the future!

      Kind regards

      • nafas

        I have a question. why do you say it doesnt make language delay.you always repeat this sentence but never give a total scienrific text.
        Before the development of children’ s brain, starting a new language will have some risks.
        The complete development of the two areas of brain(broca and wernicke) is needed for starting a second one…starting and exposing the child to two or more languages befor these two areas are developed, will harm.

        • Mary-Pat

          Hello. I wonder what you mean by a total scientific text. The 2 journal texts I cited at the end of the article are published articles in internationally peer reviewed journals and as for the book-Katherine Kohnert is a much published researcher in the field. Her book includes a wide range of internationally peer-reviewed studies of language development in bilingual children with and without language impairment. Of course 3 citations is not exhaustive but sufficient for the purposes of the post to my mind. I’m also curious as to the scientific source of your own claim.

        • Rita

          Hello Nafas,
          as Mary-Pat clearly explains, the scientific evidence for the fact that bilingualism does not cause language delay exists and can be found in the reference she gives.
          Children and adults learn an additional language in a different way. A child’s brain can process more than one language in parallel, in the same location of the Broca’s area. “People who learned a second language as children used the same region in Broca’s area for both languages. But those who learned a second language later in life made use of a distinct region in Broca’s area for their second language–near the one activated for their native tongue.” The Bilingual Brain (article in the Discover Magazine)
          I would also invite you to quote the source for your statement.
          Kind regards



  1. The 3 times you should definitely ignore your doctor…. | - […] You might also find this post that I wrote for Multilingual Parenting useful to read before you go to…
  2. Pasyvioji dvikalbystė – kodėl? | lin - […] O’Malley-Keighran, Dr. Mary-Pat, Dr. Early Bilingual Language Development: Facts and Fictions. multilingualparenting.com […]
  3. What to say when the doctor gets it wrong……. | - […] First of all you can inform yourself about bilingualism before you encounter the HCP so that you feel confident…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.