Bilingual baby - will it delay speech?

Some numbers around being bilingual

Can you guess how many languages there are in the world? Give it a go...

There are 6,900 different languages. 6,900 different sets of a combination of sounds that we use to represent the world around us!

The literacy trust (2000) estimates that there are over 300 of these languages spoken in London schools.  More than half of the speech and language therapists that work with a paediatric caseload have at least one bilingual child on their caseload and around 10 percent have more than 20! (Winter 1999)

It is no wonder then that bilingualism is of great interest to Speech and Language Therapists and of course parents too! It is a fascinating area. As parents and professionals we are aiming to support and develop children’s’ language skills, it’s a given then that there will be many questions about how speaking more than one language will impact upon this process.

Commonly asked questions

Below are some facts about bilingualism that answer some of the most commonly asked questions or debunk some of the most widely held beliefs. There is a wealth of information out there about language exposure and language development and on top of this people that you meet will have different experiences, opinions and ideas about what works.

  • Bilingualism is an asset. It’s an added extra and does not slow down or impede a child’s learning. The first language that a child is exposed to has a crucial role in learning (DfES 2006). So even if your child goes on to be educated in a different language from the home language, their first exposure to language (regardless of what that language is) provides them with the foundations for their future learning.
  • Mixing languages when speaking e.g. ‘Cat et dog’ (cat and dog) is not a sign of confusion but a sign of strong language skills (Pert and Letts 2006)
  • Children as young as four months have been shown to be able to distinguish between two languages!!
  • Research suggests that bilingual children perform better academically.
  • If a child has delayed phonology (understanding and usage of how to use sounds) therapy in one language will not necessarily transfer over to the other as the system for sounds in one language is learnt in context.

So what advice should I follow if I am a parent of a bilingual child?

  • Continue to use all the languages that you are comfortable with when you communicate with your child. This will not limit your child’s language abilities.
  • It is ok to mix languages if you are a bilingual speaker, so don’t worry about doing this.
  • Remember that the goal of communicating is to pass a message. If your child feels successful in doing this and also giving messages it doesn’t matter if part of this is done in one language and part in the other.
  • As with communicating with monolingual children, continue to use lots of non verbal communication e.g. gesture, facial expression as this gives your child more hooks to hang meaning on to.
  • If you have books, resources in either of the languages that your child is exposed to use these to reinforce your child’s learning.
  • If your child is starting school with limited exposure to English, this will not hold them back as long as they have a strong foundation in your home language. This will give them the starting point for learning English. If they have age appropriate skills in your home language, they are all set to start mapping another language on to the concepts that they already have.

What if my child has speech and language difficulties and is bilingual?

If your child is struggling to learn the English language it is understandable that you may want to just focus on English for a while and reduce the exposure to more than one language. It is important however that you continue to communicate in your own language, the one that you are most comfortable with.

You could also consider sharing a list of 15-20 commonly used words in your language with the nursery or school where your child attends. This will help to build the foundations in your home language. As always, when a child is struggling, it is useful to provide lots of language models, keep your language simple and repeat, repeat repeat, repeat!

If your child is receiving speech and language, ask what options there are for materials to be sent home in your home language so you can reinforce the learning.

Always remember, bilingualism is an advantage!

Bonne chance!

Written by Carolyn Fox, Children's Speech and Language Therapist

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