Updated: May 3, 2022
As a parent, you may have heard people say that speaking multiple languages to your child will confuse them and delay their language development. You may also have heard that children who speak more than one language are smarter. You might be wondering what the best way to support your child is and whether your child should see a Speech-Language Pathologist.
Children acquire languages by being exposed to them through social interaction. Around the age of 1 they should be saying their first words, which usually relate to familiar objects and people. By 18 months, we usually see an increase in vocabulary, and words like “here” and “where” may appear. By the age of 2, children tend to say between 200-300 words and are starting to combine them into short sentences.
There are two kinds of bilingual children: simultaneous bilinguals, who acquire two languages at the same time, and sequential bilinguals, who acquire one language and then they start learning another after the age of 3.
Language can be thought of as a system of rules. Bilingual children acquire two different systems of rules, and as they mature they understand which rules apply to one language (or one system) and which rules apply to the other. Sometimes they may use words from one system into the other, which is called code-switch (e.g. “Papai, I don’t want batata). This does not mean they have a delay. If your bilingual child code-switches often, you can support them by providing a model in one language only, meaning you repeat what they meant to say, but you use only one language. This will show them which words should be used with the language you use.
Simultaneous bilingual children go through the exact same stages of language acquisition as monolingual children, the difference being that the size of their vocabulary is shared between two or more languages. Therefore, if we only take into account how many words they know in one language, then we’re not looking at the full picture. Sequential bilinguals will develop their vocabulary in one language, then gradually associate another word to the same concept
The next issue is syntax and morphology. Syntax refers to word order (e.g. “I can” vs “Can I?”), while morphology refers to pieces of information we add to words (e.g. plurals, case markers such as he/his/him, past tense, etc.); we call these “pieces of information” morphemes. Different languages have different rules for word order, and different languages will use different morphemes. For example: Spanish uses morphemes on the verb to say who is doing the action, so Spanish-speakers don’t need to say “I” or “you” because it is implied. That is very different from English, in which pronouns are mandatory. Mandarin speakers don’t mark the plural, so a child who learned Mandarin and then learned English may not realize right away that there is information missing from their sentence when they say “I saw two horse”.
Simultaneous bilingual children do not tend to make grammatical mistakes that go against the typical rules of acquisition of their languages. For example, if monolingual francophones say “veux pas” and monolingual anglophones will say “no want”, bilingual children acquiring English and French will not say “je ne want” because that goes against the rules of acquisition in French (i.e. Francophones first add “pas” to the end, then as their grammar develops they add “ne” before the verb).
Sequential bilinguals may sometimes make grammatical mistakes because the new language they are acquiring can be influenced by their first language. At first it may sound like they have an accent, or like some sounds may be imprecise (e.g. “r” may be produced in a way that is closer to the “r” of the child’s first language), and they may not know as much vocabulary in the second language. Therefore, before determining whether these children have a language delay or not, we need to look at how they perform in their dominant language, how they perform in their secondary language, and then we need to take into account which errors are typical among children acquiring the same set of languages so we can better understand how the rules of one language can affect the production of the other.
Bilingual children learn early on that they need to adjust their language to the person they are talking to, or to the place they’re at, for example. The ability to think of language, and then manipulate it to fit your needs is called meta-linguistic awareness. This skill can be helpful later on as these children learn to read and write, for example.
Research has shown that at least 40% of exposure to one language is needed in order to maintain both languages. Also, our attitude towards the languages spoken by the child is important: punishing a child for not speaking a language, pretending not to understand what they say if they use one language over another, or only using one language to reprehend them is very likely to generate negative attitudes towards that language.
When should you see a Speech-Language Pathologist?
If your child is not acquiring vocabulary in both languages.
If they are not reaching language or speech milestones in their dominant language.
If they are experiencing difficulties with speech sounds in both languages.
If you are concerned with their development and would like an expert’s opinion.
Andalusia's team of clinicians has speakers of French, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, Urdu, and Brazilian Portuguese.