Q&A: What are the milestones of normal language development for a bilingual 2-year-old?

by | Jun 2, 2016 | Coaches, Language development, Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran, Toddlers | 6 comments

Q&A: What are the milestones of normal language development for a bilingual 2-year-old?



Before I ask for your advice, let me introduce my family and our languages to you. We are a Dutch (mum) – English (dad) family currently living in The Netherlands. We have a 5-year-old daughter and a 22-month-old son. We use an adapted version of OPOL with our children. I speak Dutch to the children when my husband is not around. We usually speak English when we are all together and my husband only speaks English to the kids. Most family and friends here speak Dutch but they usually speak English to my husband as his Dutch is almost non-existent. We feel that the kids get a good exposure to both languages.

Our eldest seems to have proven that our system works. She started speaking from a very early age and is about two years ahead of her peers with her vocabulary. She speaks both English and Dutch fluently and comfortably. I would say her vocabulary might be slightly bigger in Dutch but it’s really not an issue. When she started preschool (Dutch peuterspeelzaal) by age two, she could communicate well and speak in long sentences. The kids have been at home with me during their first two years, then starting preschool when they turn two.

Our youngest is about to start preschool but I am concerned that he does not speak at all yet. He makes plenty of noises, says mama, dada, uh oh, Ella (for his sister). He communicates well by pointing, shaking his head, etc. According to the guidelines for a monolingual Dutch child, he is delayed. I feel that he is indeed slow (and lazy) but have a sense that the two languages also add to this and that he will get there in his own time.

Before he starts preschool, could you advise me of some general guidelines for when multilingual children usually start speaking more? I want to be prepared when his teachers raise the issue as they have no experience with multilingualism (apart from our daughter several years ago).

Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Kindest regards,


Hello Joanie,

thank you for your question about language development in bilingual toddlers. So your son is 22 months old and while he makes plenty of noises and seems to have some words (mama, dada, uh oh and Ella) and is communicative, you are concerned that his language may be delayed.

A few general points first. There is a lot of normal variation in early child language development in general and in bilingual children in particular. In the literature it says first words may emerge from 8- 18 months depending on where you read – that’s quite a long time frame for a baby/toddler! The average vocabulary of an 18-month-old is approximately 50 words and in your son’s case this would be across the two languages. By two years, or when the child has 50 single words, you can expect to see two word phrases emerging. For example: my ball, daddy gone etc.

It might be a good idea to actually keep a word diary of the word he is saying. And to see if you can see steady progress over time. The progress is important; possibly more important than the number of words he is starting out with. About 15% of otherwise typically developing 2 year olds are considered Late Talkers (that is they are two years old and do not have a minimal core vocabulary of 50-100 words and do not produce 2-3 word utterances). About half of these children who are considered late talkers will catch up by age 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 understanding 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.

It’s not meaningful to compare him to a monolingual Dutch speaking child as that is not comparing like with like and children’s speech and language skills tend to be distributed across the languages. And it’s not meaningful to compare him with sister either as each child’s pattern of development is unique. And it might be helpful to think of him as actually talking now. From your email, it seems he is using words although maybe not as many as you might expect for his age.

Another thing to bear in mind is that children are not lazy when it comes to language development. They are designed to acquire languages. Now, it is also worth looking at his opportunities to communicate. Sometimes we can anticipate a child’s needs so they don’t actually have to say anything to have their needs met. And sometimes older siblings can take up a lot of the conversational space.

So what can you do in the meantime? 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 toddler; just you and him together or you could build the ideas into your interactions throughout the day.

So 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 the child read the book their own way. So 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. So if you notice him looking at a picture, you can comment, for example ‘It’s a tiger!’
  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 – now I’ve 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 your child’s 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 & 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 book 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 & 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 & picking something out. Talk about how it feels while it’s still in the bag, describing it. So 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 in

I 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.

For the shorter bursts of input, you can do things like talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. So 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.

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.

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. Ages and stages are general guidelines – think 12 month-ish for first words. And the main thing is seeing steady progress. If you want a chart of approximate ages and stages, the link below is useful as a very general guide.

And here is a progress checker for checking your child’s language development. Interestingly, they use 50 words by age two as a benchmark for language development while Elisabeth Peña, a well-respected researcher in bilingualism stresses at least 25 words at age two. And Caroline Bowen suggests referral to an SLT if the child has fewer than 50 words between 18 and 24 months.

With these ideas you can create great communication opportunities

Finally, here is a recent post I wrote about early bilingual language development that might also be useful.

Hope this helps, please post any follow-up questions you may have below!

Kind regards,


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).


  1. Marta

    My son is 2 y and 4 months old, he knows all the colors, counts from 1 to 20 , he know the alphabet, he knows all animals , whatever you ask him he knows ! … But the problem is that he can’t say two words , he don’t know how to ask if he wants something, he will just come grabs my hand and show me what he wants ! We are a bilingual family , but everything he says he knows from cartoons,not from us and all the words he says are on English, but he understands when I’m talking Macedonian also , but he talks English … . Also the problem is he don’t pay attention when you talking to him or when you want to show him something, he’ll pay attention just if he likes something like if I say “who wants kinder surprise” .. no matter what he’s doing he’ll turn, yell “surprise” and come pick up. He’s trying to talk, he’s talking to me giggling something but I can’t understand. He knows a lots of words but can’t make one sentence. If you have any suggestions how I can help to my boy to start talking anything is welcomed tnx a lot 🙂

  2. Mary-Pat O Malley-Keighran

    Hi Marta

    – thanks for taking the time to comment. It sounds like your little boy initiates communication which is very positive. So at his age, I would not be expecting full sentences. I would be expecting him to be combining 2-3 words together for example want that, that’s mine, where’s daddy? and so on. How do you help him get there? Here are X things you can do that work to build children’s language:

    #1 if it fits in with your culture, I would follow his lead – so forget about trying to direct his attention to something your’re interested in. Instead, follow his interests- talk about what he is looking at or what he is doing using simple, short utterances like You love Kinder Surprise! or Yummy Kinder Surprise.
    #2 Reduce questions so instead of testing and asking “What’s that?” Give him the name of the thing.
    #3 Expand what he says. So if he says one word, you expand it and try and include a verb for example; Daddy went shopping.
    #4 Do not ask him to repeat things
    #5 Try communicative temptations to give him opportunities to use the language he has. You can find them here: http://www.talkingkids.org/2011/07/communication-temptations-how-use-your.html
    #6 If you don’t already, watch the cartoons with him and pause occasionally to comment in simple language on what is happening,

    You can find examples of early word combinations to aim for here: http://www.speech-language-therapy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=33:brown&catid=2:uncategorised&Itemid=117

    Hope this helps and if you do not see progress after systematically implementing these ideas, it would be good to see a speech and language therapist.

  3. LaTonya

    Hi! Our native language is Spanish. My son is having trouble with English. He’s only been speaking English for a year. What should I do

    • Rita

      Dear LaTonya,

      Please send in a question with some more details such as:
      – the age of your son
      – who speaks what language to him?
      – where do you live?
      – what kind of troubles does he have with English?
      – what are you doing to help him?
      – how is learning English?
      – how good is his Spanish?
      Unfortunately it is not possible to comment on your question without further information.
      Kind regards,

  4. nina

    Hi, and thank you for this great resource!

    We are a multilingual family. My 7 year old son is trilingual, proficient in all languages, and started to speak before he was 12 months old.
    My 16 months old daughter “talks” a lot, but almost entirely in what I think they call jargon (long strings of sounds and different intonations, but almost no recognisable words). She has been doing so for several months now. She says papa (for daddy), poopoo (for pooh), wow-wow (for dog), vroom-vroom (for car/airplane), nyum-nyum (for food/eating/drink/drinking/yummy), bah (for ball and something falling down), hellyo-hellyo for hello/telephone and has a few more signs (gestures) she will use consistently for fish/swimming, sleeping/cuddling, scary/afraid, butterfly/bird/flying.
    She clearly understands a lot of conversation in our two main languages, picking up things we say even amongst each other (not directed at her) and will always follow commands correctly, and express her needs and wishes. However, she does not seem very interested in trying to form new words, imitate the actual sound of the words we speak (actions seem to call her attention more: she imitates gestures/signs almost immediately). Does this sound like a potential speech disorder to you? I am increasingly having to listen to questions from concerned family and friends….
    Thank you for your help!

  5. Mary-Pat

    Hi Nina. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your little girl is actually using words by the sounds of it. Animal noises and sound effects count as words in the McArthur Bates Communicative Development Inventories which are widely used with multilingual children. Bah for ball would be fairly typical for her age too as many young children leave out the final consonant in their early words. As for her being interested in trying to form new words correctly- most children don’t respond well to attempts to get them to imitate a sound or word. That’s not meaningful communication for them You’re better off to say the words as she would if she could. No need to stress the word more or lengthen it- just say it naturally after her a few times and leave it at that. I’m including a link to a post I wrote recently about speech delay :


    So at 16 months you’d expect to understand about 25 of what she says.

    You also expect to see new words being used over the coming months and by 18 months she should have at least 20 words including nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives. That’s 20 in total across the 2 languages.

    And here is another post I wrote recently about children who are late to talk


    In early language development, gestures, babble, and 1st words will overlap- just because 1st words have emerged doesn’t mean babble stops. It’s also positive that she understands well and is engaged in interaction. Children’s early development does vary a lot and comparisons don’t really help. Right now, it doesn’t sound to me like a speech disorder but it is a good idea to spend some time reading and playing together where you describe what is going on- don’t ask her questions like what’s that but just keep a running commentary going and leave spaces for her to take a turn. Keep an eye on her language development to make sure that new words are coming- don’t worry too much about how they sound for now. Hope that helps! All the best, MP


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