Q&A: How far behind can parents expect a bilingual child’s second language to be?

by | Jul 27, 2017 | Challenges, Coaches, Language development, Rita R | 0 comments

How far behind can parents expect a bilingual child’s second language to be?




I have a three-year-old daughter who is bilingual. I speak exclusively English and my husband speaks exclusively Czech to her (since birth). In a typical day, she is exposed to about 70% English and 30% Czech. She listens to music and looks at books in both languages as well as Skypes relatives in Czech each week. She has a tremendous vocabulary in both languages. However, she only speaks sentences in English.

She occasionally uses Czech words to identify things. When her father is speaking to her she understands everything but she does not respond to him in Czech. She has fun translating what she hears from her father into English for me. I am wondering if this is typical progression? How far behind does the second language develop?

If she is at a three-year-old level for English can I expect her to be at a two-year-old level for Czech? Should we be prompting her to speak more Czech (I don’t want to pressure her) and if so, how? We are traveling to the Czech Republic for a month. It is my hope that this immersion will propel her to start speaking more Czech.

I appreciate your expertise and any suggestions you may have for my family.

Thanks in advance!



Dear Kristin

Thank you for your question about your little bilingual child’s language development in her two languages, English and Czech.

What you describe sounds like a very typical and to some extent advanced language skills for a 3-year-old. That she has a big vocabulary in both languages at this early age is impressive, and a sign of a normal language development.

The fact that your daughter only speaks in sentences in English is nothing to worry about at this stage. Czech will follow soon, since she gets continuous interactive exposure to the language both from her father and other Czech-speakers via Skype. You mention that the proportion of exposure is 70/30 for English/Czech – based on that ratio, it is perfectly natural that the first language she learns to speak in sentences in is English.

As a couple of months have already passed since you sent in your question (delay is due to the many queries coming in), you will by now have spent a month in the Czech Republic, which will give your little girl’s confidence in expressing herself in Czech a significant boost. You may not notice it at once, but your visit will definitely have a great positive influence on her ability to speak Czech.

You are right in not putting pressure on your daughter to speak – it will happen, and when it does, you will wonder why you were ever worried about it! Just encourage your husband to engage her in conversation as much as possible, e.g. by discussing the story line in books and asking lots of questions.

Every child’s language development is different, independent of how many languages the child learns. Even monolingual children and siblings vary greatly in how quickly they start to understand, say the first word and begin to form sentences. Therefore, I would not want to give you an expected level of fluency for what is now your daughter’s second language.

Like I often mention, patience is a virtue that parents of bilingual children will need to have. It may sometimes take our kids a bit longer to get up to speed with all their languages, but when they do, what a joy for everyone involved!

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


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.