Confused about language development in bilingual children? I was!

first wordsIt’s been a while since I last posted.  This blog is about the rewards and challenges of bringing our son up bilingual and aims to track the emergence and development of his languages.  Except there hasn’t been much emergence, at least in terms of speaking, so far! S is now 18 months… and still no first words.  He does now understand quite a bit, including simple instructions like lavamos los dientes (let’s brush your teeth), sientate (sit down), and the names of some body parts, animals, clothes, food and toys.  He is generally very vocal, noisy and communicative using facial expressions, sounds and gestures.  He also makes a few animals sounds.  However at the same time, despite looking out very hard for it, we have been unable to recognise anything vaguely like a word, no dada, mama or bubye.  

Everyone keeps saying, ‘boys take longer to talk’, ‘he was an early walker so he’ll be a late talker’, ‘oh don’t worry, bilingual children always speak later’,  ‘bilingual babies’ language development is slower’ or ‘bilingual speech can be delayed by a few months’ (one speech therapist that I met informally told me language could be delayed by 6 months!).  I was finding this reassuring… until I started to notice other toddlers, both bilingual and boys, had already begun talking.

If you google ‘bilingual children language delay’, it easy to find a lot of forums and sources that cling to these assumptions.  However, with a more discerning look, it is clear that current research suggests that monolingual and bilingual children meet major language developmental milestones at similar times.  ‘While a bilingual child’s vocabulary in each individual language may be smaller than average, his total vocabulary (from both languages) will be at least the same size as a monolingual child. Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but still within the normal age range (between 8-15 months)’.   Here are a couple of links to some interesting articles at multilingualliving.com and hanen.org on this topic.

I know all children have their own time-scale for development, but when you keep reading that ‘by the time they’re one and a half, toddlers are usually using at least 10 simple words like daddy, cup and dog though these aren’t always clear.’ (NHS Information Service for Parents) and your little one hasn’t even said ‘mama’, you do start to wonder.  I am speaking to him enough? Is there something else I should be doing? Is there some problem?

I spoke to the health visitor, making a conscious decision not to mention our household’s bilingualism as I didn’t want my concerns to be dismissed, to see if she had any recommendations.  She asked me about S’s hearing, which it hadn’t occurred to me could be a problem – he seems to respond well to noises, music and turns when spoken to. Apparently Bristol is the glue ear capital of the UK (the audiologist didn’t seem to know why!)  This is a condition where fluid get trapped in the ear, blocking sound and it can be the cause of temporary language delay in small children.  S has now had a hearing test, but the results were inconclusive so we are due to go back again in a couple of months.

In the meantime…. perhaps he’ll start to talk!

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9 thoughts on “Confused about language development in bilingual children? I was!

    • Thanks for the support! I will try and share it at your culture blog hop… hopefully I will work out how to do it!

      OK, I had a go but I don’t understand. I copied the button code and posted it at the bottom of my blog entry but I could only see the text. What did I do wrong?

      • Just click on the link above, and scroll all the way down. After the last entry #20 you’ll see a blue button that says “ADD YOUR LINK.” Just copy the URL of your post, type in title, and your email; and you’re done! 🙂 Hope this helps.

  1. Hi Tacodelenguas!! I can totally identify with your concerns and, like you, I read all the stuff I could get my hands on when my eldest was this age. All I can say is try not to worry, you’ll see that he picks up in no time. I’m no expert, but just from seeing the speech development of other kids (friends and family, both bilingual and monolingual) I’d definitely say the early talkers didn’t always grow into the most expressive kids later on, and neither did the slow talkers grow up with any kind of developmental delay. I know that’s a small consolation, but I wish I had worried less about these things when my two were tiny. In a couple of years you’ll have a whole new set of worries. Haha. This motherhood thing’s a barrel of laughs, eh?! Un abrazo.

    • Glad to know it’s not just me worrying! Thanks for the comment. I enjoy your blog. I was thinking about it this morning on my walk to nursery as we saw a blackbird… or was it a crow!

  2. I completely agree with what you say. The fact a child is being brought up bilingual doesn’t mean there should be a delay in their speech development. However, it is true that every child is different and, bilingual or not, some children take longer to speak. My twins are 27 months and, although they understand pretty much everything in both languages, they are only able to say a handful of words (mainly in Spanish) and whichever words they repeat are not very accurate. They’ve been working with a speech therapist for a while and she mantains that this is perfectly normal for a child this age. So I wouldn’t worry too much. I think each child, bilingual or not, follows their own rules.
    Anyway, it was nice to find your blog.

  3. My dad, not raised bilingual, didn’t talk until he was three. His family finally stopped responding to sounds and gestures so his first words were, “Can I have some food?”. Every kid is different. Good to check things out but not freak out.

  4. I wasn’t raised bilingual, but my mom says that I was slow to talk because I was able to communicate what I wanted without words, so why bother? It’s great that you are checking out his hearing, just in case, but he’s probably just a late bloomer. One thing I’ve heard is that kids tend to concentrate on one area at a time – such as gross motor, fine motor, speech, etc. – and so the other areas don’t get as much attention during that time. So for example my 16 month old only has a few words (vs. his older brother that had quite a few at this age), but he walked a lot earlier. Who knows! Will be glad to follow along as he grows!

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