Q&A: Is it normal for a bilingual toddler to go silent?

by | Feb 23, 2017 | Challenges, Coaches, Language development, Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran, Toddlers | 0 comments

Is it normal for a bilingual toddler to go silent?




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.


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 talknua com. There are checklists we can fill out to assess his language at this age.

All the best!

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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