Bilingualism and Language Delays

There are speech therapists, teachers, principals, pediatricians and special education instructors who continue to encourage parents to drop a second language when they see a speech delay in a young child.  In the past, most experts recommended that bilingual families pick one language to speak at home and school and drop the second language. Recent research confirms that children with a diagnosed language delay can actually continue to learn two languages, although a delay in the first language will mean a delay in the second language too.

Parents from bilingual households often hear from family members and friends that their child is a late talker due to the fact that two languages are being spoken at home. There is currently no empirical evidence that links bilingualism to language delays.   Instead, causes of speech delay are related to many factors including multiple ear infections, hearing loss, anatomical abnormalities, neurologic impairment, injuries and more.  However, bilingualism is NOT the cause of speech delays.  Children who are late talkers are delayed regardless of whether they are exposed to one language or more than one language.

If you suspect a language delay and are part of a bilingual household, make sure that your toddler receives a thorough hearing test, performed by an audiologist.  Also make sure that your toddler understands simple commands in the family language; that will mean that the child is picking up the languages.   Lastly, your toddler’s vocabulary should be increasing, there should be no major problems with pronunciation, and his or her comprehension could continue to develop with time.  Keeping a list of all the words in the different languages is helpful, especially should you decide to consult a therapist.

As a young child is developing, it is also a good idea to remember that every bilingual household differs.  Some children might be exposed to two languages immediately at birth; others might not experience a second language until they are toddlers when a caregiver or grandparent might become more involved in their daily activities.  Children that speak English along with another romance language like Spanish, Italian and French share a similar writing system where a child exposed to a language like Japanese does not. Exposure to different languages also differs from one household to another; sometimes a second language is used also between friends or more commonly through books, television shows and other devices in the household.  In other cases, the second language is more limited.

If you do find that your child has a speech delay and want to encourage bilingualism at home, talk to your SLP.  Neither language needs to be compromised, and often an SLP that provides therapy in more than one language will understand your child’s needs and be able to train parents on techniques that can be used at home.   Patience is key, but bilingual children with language delays can master more than one language if given the proper therapy.