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Two times the talk: A look a bilingualism

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


An increase in diversity and education is increasing the number of children who are being raised in bilingual homes. Currently one in five children speak a language other than English at home. Bilingualism provides advantages to a language learning child such as learning new words more easily, breaking down sounds in words, and putting words into categories. But how can a child learn two languages when they haven’t mastered one?

Learning two languages at once is not typically difficult for a child, in fact some say its causes no differences at all. In order for a child to become fluent in two languages, the child must be exposed to both languages regularly. Language development for these bilingual children may vary depending on the languages they are learning. For example, children learning Hebrew will typically use more nouns than English speaking children; however, English speaking children have a larger repertoire of predicates. With this being said, studies show that both children will develop comparable vocabularies by the time they reach a vocabulary of 300 words. Differences in other languages are also observed. For example, French children were observed having an overall smaller vocabulary at the beginning stages of word learning but used more complex grammar when speaking.

Therefore, it is easy to see that children learn different languages differently. These inconsistencies frequently concern parents about potential language delays and impairments. Research has shown that many bilingual children appear to have less language than monolingual speaking children, especially on speech assessments. However, there are differences that should be considered when working with a bilingual child.

  • First, when looking at developmental norm charts, keep in mind that your child’s vocabulary consists of both languages, not just one. In addition, all words, overlapping and unique, must be counted towards the total vocabulary number. Bilingual children may appear to have less language than a monolingual speaking child, but this does not always present as a need for concern, especially if your bilingual child appears to be learning both languages appropriately.
  • Second, a child learning two languages is likely to make mistakes with sentence structure and grammar. It is common for children to mix languages depending on exposure and complexity of what they are trying to say.

So when should you be concerned about your child’s language?

If your child is experiencing difficulties in both languages, you may want to have them evaluated. It is important that you try to find a speech therapist that has the ability to test them in both languages if possible to determine weaknesses in one or both languages. Your speech therapist will be able to determine the areas of weakness, if any, in the specific language, as well as provide suggestions as to what to do moving forward to help your child increase their language learning and overall communication.

Differences in a child’s language who is learning more than one language may consist of speaking in shorter sentences, being difficult to understand, and not having age appropriate words in either language.

Knowing if your child is struggling may be difficult to identify, especially if they are not around other children their age or if they are your first child. Remember that each child learns and grows at their own pace, but if you are worried, there is no harm in scheduling a screening or an evaluation for your child. Awareness is just another tool for your toolbox!