Almost any parent I know has been concerned at some point about language development. Even if we know every child is different, it seems sometimes difficult not to make comparisons between siblings or nursery school classmates, and not to worry about our children, especially when we hear: “Really, Emma still doesn’t say Mama or Papa?” or “At Henry’s age (18 months), my son was already speaking using full sentences!”
Language and speaking skills are built progressively during childhood and we have many reasons to wonder about their development, especially when our children live in a bilingual environment (meaning they are exposed to at least two languages, even if not perfectly fluent in both). When do specialists talk about speech disorders and language delays? What are the characteristics of the language development for bilingual children?
Let’s figure out the impact of bilingualism on language learning, what to expect as parents of bilingual children, and which signs should make us ask for professional advice.
1- Speech, language and their disorders
- Language is the ability to acquire and use a complex system of communication, made of socially shared rules like what words mean, how to make new words, how to put words together in sentences, etc.
- Speech is the verbal form of communication and consists in producing the correct sounds and speaking fluently without hesitation.
A child suffering from a language disorder will have trouble understanding others or expressing one’s ideas or feelings, while another one with a speech disorder will find it challenging to pronounce some sounds or words.
2- Bilingualism and development of language during early childhood
- Bilingualism does NOT cause language or speech delays!
We actually observe a large variability in the development of speaking skills among children. Studies have proved that a child exposed to 2 languages or more will start speaking at the same age in average as a monolingual child. Bilingual children may have less vocabulary in each language than children exposed to only one language, but their total vocabulary (adding both languages) will be at least the same size. Science demonstrates that a child’s brain can learn more than one language. Read more.
- What to expect when a child learns 2 languages
First, if your child starts to learn a second language after the age of 3, he or she may not speak in this language for up to 6 months, but this “silent period” does not mean that the child does not understand. Most children will need time to process the new information before being able to express themselves with the new vocabulary and grammatical rules.
You may also think that your child mixes the 2 languages, using both English and French words in the same sentence. Don’t worry: this so-called code switching is absolutely normal and your child is aware of which words belong to which language. Most bilingual adults are code switching as well, using the first word that comes to their mind to express an idea, or the most precise term to describe a feeling for example.
To some extent, grammar mistakes should not be a concern as long as you notice improvement as time goes. As the grammatical rules are different in the languages studied, it may take some time to figure out which preposition has to be used after a particular verb, and to memorize expressions.
Finally you may have the feeling that your child is losing one language. It would be ideal to be exposed equally to both, but this is usually not that easy. Obviously you will see more improvement in the language your child hears and practices most. Learn more
- Tips to help a child in the process of learning 2 languages
The language skills are built by repeated exposure to this language and by practice. Therefore, speak as much as you can to your child from birth, if possible in your native language. Read, sing and play games you and your child like in your mother tongue will also create a positive reinforcement that will help the child learn efficiently.
You may have heard that each parent should stick to one language, but in many cases this is not possible, and this is absolutely fine. However it may be useful to be consistent with the strategy you have chosen, for example :
- associate one language with one person (each parent speaks his/her native language)
- associate one language with one place (one language spoken at home, one language spoken at nursery, during activities, etc.)
- associate one language with one activity (meals in French, games in English, etc.)
3- Signs that may be associated with a speech/language disorder
If around 18 months – 2 year old your child does not seem to understand, does not reply to his name, does not speak at all, or if he or she cannot be understood, you should definitely ask for advice from a speech language pathologist.
A preschool child who does not pronounce certain sounds properly, or stutters for instance, may also benefit from a speech therapy. If the child is bilingual, the same difficulties will be observed in the 2 languages.
ASHA (American Speech Language Hearing Association) provides a chart of typical speech and language development, and another one for older children about communication and development, that can be used as guidelines.
Would some parents have any concern, they could contact a speech therapist who will conduct a thorough assessment of the child, leading to a diagnosis, and if necessary suggest an individualized treatment.
4- A child with a speech or language disorder in the bilingual environment
If your child has a speech or language disorder, you should absolutely continue exposing him or her to both languages (or more)!
Indeed, the speech disorder is not caused by bilingualism (most of them have a genetic origin, that leads to a slightly different brain structure). As your mother tongue is already linked with affectivity and cultural values in your child’s mind, he or she may feel hurt if you switch to another one. Read more
To help your child, try to keep a well-structured bilingual setting in your family.
Moreover keep in mind that it has been shown that bilingualism brings cognitive benefits to children:
- Bilingual children seem to be better at focusing and ignoring distractions
- Bilingual individuals tend to be better at problem solving, planning, multi-tasking, and more creative overall
- They develop linguistic facilities,
- Their brain seems to be aging slower.
5- Speech therapy and literacy disorders
The literacy disorders, or language-based learning disorders, are problems with age-appropriate reading, spelling and/or writing, that have nothing to do with how smart the child (or adult) is.
For example, dyslexia is the specific learning problem of reading, but it usually is linked with other problems in writing/comprehension or with language disorders.
These troubles can be diagnosed in elementary school after a speech therapist or a teacher noticed some difficulties. The signs that should make parents and educational professionals think about a literacy disorder include:
- Difficulties with identifying the sounds that correspond to letters
- Mixing the order of letters in a word
- Mixing the numbers in a math calculation
- Difficulties to understand questions or to follow directions
- Difficulties to learn (the alphabet, the time tables…)
In this case, the child will be assessed by a whole team of professionals including a speech-language pathologist, a general practitioner, a psychologist, a neurological specialist, a physiotherapist, a psycho-motor therapist, and an occupational therapist. This multidisciplinary approach will lead to a diagnostic, used to define the therapeutic aspects of a treatment, as well as educational adaptations to be followed by the child’s teachers.
Beside being able to help children with language disorders, the French “Orthophoniste” may also provide therapy in the case of Language-Based learning disorders.
Learn more by watching Aodrenn’s interview!
APEDA NY is an association which aims to help French-speaking parents living in the NY aera and whose children suffer from language-based learning disorders as dyslexia, dyscalculia,dyspraxia, dysgraphia, or have a high intellectual potential for instance. Do not hesitate to contact them would you like more information or to become a member.
Photos credits : email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com