Raising your child bilingual? Congratulations! You’re giving them an advantage from the start.
Research from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) suggests that bilingual children are better at creating solutions to problems, categorizing words, and being open-minded.
There are no studies that suggest that bilingual children will have delayed speech or language. Your child will develop language differently than their monolingual peers. It can be challenging to determine if your child has a speech or language disorder that requires a professional’s help. Normal checklists won’t necessarily apply to your situation.
Types of bilingualism
Simultaneous bilingualism is when your baby learns two languages from birth. Their language development is broken into undifferentiated and differentiated stages.
At first in the undifferentiated stage, your child won’t separate the two languages in their head. They’ll babble, learn first words, and speak in two languages at once in one sentence. This is normal.
As they get older, around 3 years of age and beyond, they’ll realize that they know two languages. This is called the differentiated stage. Your child will begin to speak in one language or the other and stop switching languages within one conversation. It can take a few years for your child to fully develop in the differentiated stage.
It is called sequential bilingualism if your child was first exposed to one language and then to a second language before the age of three. In this case, your baby will understand the grammar and sounds of their first language. They should have normal, monolingual milestones during this period.
Once the second language is introduced, it’s normal for your child to confuse grammar. This is the second stage. They might speak in their second language using the first language’s rules. If your child begins to lose the grammar of their first language, then this can be a red flag.
The third step is the silent stage. Children might be uncomfortable speaking around specific people or in particular settings. Your child might talk freely at home but struggle to talk at school. This is also when you notice your child’s language skills aren’t at their peer’s level. For a bilingual child, this may be normal. What you need to watch out for is mutism: the inability to speak in certain situations or in general. If you’re worried your bilingual child’s silent stage is mutism, consult with a speech-language pathologist.
The final step is code-switching in conversations. By this time, your child is comfortable in both languages but is still working on differentiating the two. Expect them to switch from one language to another in one sentence or conversation. Your child will begin to know when to use each language. For instance, a child may speak one language at home and another at school. A child may speak to certain family members in one language and to other family members in the second language.
When to be concerned
Bilingual children are likely to combine languages in one sentence, have selective periods of silence, confuse grammar rules, and develop language slower than their peers. So when is this abnormal?
Here are a few abnormal situations you should be concerned about:
● Under 6 months:
No bilabial sounds.
● 6-15 months
Less than one word per week.
Less than 20 words in both languages combined.
Less than a countable number of words and no word combinations.
Other issues to look for:
- Grammar errors in the first language
- Prolonged or true mutism
- Word retrieval difficulties
How to find help
Does your child have some of these concerns? Are you not quite sure what to look for?
Consulting with a speech-language pathologist is a great place to start. Speech-language pathologists are trained to screen and evaluate children for possible speech and language delays.
If you’re specifically worried about bilingual delays, it’s a good idea to consult with a speech-language pathologist who knows about the specifics of bilingualism. Not all speech-language pathologists will have this expertise.