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



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!


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?
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


  • 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-Keighran

Mary-Pat O’Malley is a lecturer, author, researcher, speech and language therapist and lover of all things to do with speech, language and communication. She has over 25 years’ experience of working with families and 16 years’ experience of teaching in university. Mary-Pat has done extensive research in communication including story-telling and non-word repetition in bilingual children. She is passionate about making bilingualism research and speech and language therapy for bilingual children accessible to parents. Mary-Pat is currently a lecturer in speech and language therapy at NUI Galway on the west coast of Ireland and you can find her blog at Talk Nua. (CORU Reg. No. SL018147).


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