Your child is not talking much. But all the other 2-year-old kids seem to be talking a lot! Should you be worried? Knowing this can be more difficult when your child is bilingual. In this post, you will learn about early language development and what you should do if your child is a late talker. Come on in, whether your child is a bilingual or not!
‘’Our son is 24 months old. He understands what we say but the only vocabulary he has is ‘’mama, meme, anni, daddy, yes, and oh no’’. My cousin’s sons who are younger than him already combine two words. Should we be worried?’’
”My son is almost 2 years old and does not say anything yet except for mama and daddy. Is this normal?”
”My 2-year-old son is learning German in kinder garden. We speak Arabic and Turkish in the home with my husband. Right now, my child does not speak. We are afraid that he will confuse the languages. Should we speak only one language at home?”
”My son is 2 years old and we always speak Greek at home and he hears Spanish and English at school. He only points at the things he wants at home. He can say more or less 10 words in Greek.”
”My 26-month-old understands everything and takes directions but does not say anything yet. She has a very limited vocabulary, such as ”hi, bye, and grandpa” and it is very difficult to understand what she says.”
Parents ask these questions to me all the time.
A lot of parents are concerned about their toddlers who do not talk yet.
Looking around, seeing the other peers forming two-word phrases and looking back to your child…
What is wrong? Is it bilingualism? And what can you do if your child does not speak much yet?
If you already know about early bilingual language development and want to read my recommendations on what you should do if your child is not talking, click here.
What You Should Know About Language Development
When you have worries about your bilingual child’s language development, pay attention to the development of the two languages. Some of the most important questions you should ask here about bilingualism and language development are:
- How much does my child hear and use each of the languages during the day?
- Are both (all) the languages developing late or only one of them?
Bilingual language development is affected by different factors and if there is a developmental problem, both languages will be falling behind, not only one. If only one language is developing late, it is good to consider the answers to the first question: How much does my child hear and use each of the languages during the day?
Alright, coming back to your bilingual child who does not produce enough words yet…
Let’s break this down a bit first to understand the problem and the possible solutions.
EARLY LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Language development does not only mean producing words but also using gestures, imitation, pointing, and responding to sounds. We expect children to perform different language milestones at each age.
We are going to scratch the surface of early typical language development to understand what we need to know about late talking.
Typically developing children usually say their first words around 12 months. Around 15 months they have 4 to 6 words and after this point, their vocabulary keeps growing fast.
- 12 months – first words
- 15 months – 4-6 words
- 18 months – 20-50 words
- 24 months – 200-300 words
Click to find more information about early language development and vocabulary size.
According to The Hanen Centre, “a late-talker is a toddler (between 18-30 months) who has a good understanding of language, typically developing play skills, motor skills, thinking skills, and social skills, but has a limited spoken vocabulary for his or her age.”
Some children can of course develop differently than the norm. Some may talk much earlier, some a bit later. But if your child is still producing a very limited number of words (fewer than 50) around age 2, this can be an indicator of late talking.
But do monolingual and bilingual children produce the same number of words at a given age?
Yes and no.
To understand this, let’s first take a look at some of the language characteristics of bilingual children.
EARLY LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT FOR BILINGUAL CHILDREN
Although bilingualism is an amazing virtue with many benefits, raising a bilingual child is not like a walk in the park.
There are some myths and truths about bilingual language development that I will reveal in a second.
Let’s start with some of the myths related to the questions above I received from the parents.
These myths surrounding bilingual language development give parents unneeded worry about their child’s language development.
Some of the myths that worry parents
The biggest myth is: Bilingualism can cause language delay or disorder.
This is not the truth. Of course, some bilingual children have a language delay or disorder like any other child. But language delay or disorder does not come from being bilingual.
If your bilingual child has a language delay or disorder, you do not have to drop the home (minority) language and focus only on the majority language. No.
Another big myth is: Bilingual children do not get confused by different languages.
Children know the differences between the languages from very early on. Don’t worry!
Some of the facts that parents should know
BUT the truth is we still can’t say that bilingual children’s language development is exactly same as monolinguals’.
There are many similarities between their language development. However, we can’t expect their language development to be the same.
Because many different factors play a role in bilingual language development.
I want to repeat this again. Some of these factors are; how often a bilingual hears and speaks the languages, at what age the child started hearing and using the languages, who speaks the languages with the child, and so on.
Bilingual language development can be a complex subject and every bilingual child develop in their own pace.
Let’s talk about the vocabulary size of bilingual children now. Bilingual children produce the same amount of words as monolingual children. BUT there is a concept called ‘conceptual vocabulary’. It means the total number of concepts a child knows regardless of the language.
If your child knows 10 words in German and 10 words in English, that shows that your child knows more or less 20 different concepts!
How many words your child knows in a given language is connected to how much exposure and active use your child has in that language. (Only watching TV to learn a language is not enough!)
In other words, bilingual children’s vocabulary size in their two languages = monolinguals’ vocabulary size in their one language.
Many of the language milestones are almost the same for monolinguals and bilinguals. But there are also some differences between them too.
Alright, so far we have covered lots of information about language development and delay. But what can you do if your child seem to have a language delay?
”MY CHILD IS NOT TALKING YET! What to do?”
If your child is behind on the language milestones I mentioned above, there are several things you should do.
IMPORTANT: The following advice is based on the assumption that your child’s hearing, oral and general development are normal! If your child might have other problems than only late talking, don’t wait to see a doctor. Please read LingoBalance’s disclaimer here!
USE SIMPLE and NATURALISTIC METHODS in YOUR EVERYDAY INTERACTIONS with YOUR CHILD
If your child is not talking much but communicating with you through pointing, asking to get something through making sounds, it is a good sign.
It means that your child is intentionally communicating with you. But the missing part is word production.
The things you can do to help your child talk will depend on your child’s age and other skill levels. The important thing is to meet your child at his/her level first and see where you can go from there. I am sure you will have fun doing it too!
As I will talk about how you can encourage your child to talk by using some techniques I want to discourage you from asking questions to your child.
Are you asking your child too many questions?
If you constantly ask questions to your child about the things that your child is not interested in at the given moment, your attempts will not be beneficial for your child.
This can even put unnecessary pressure on your child. Imagine that someone is asking you ”what is this” ”can you name this” ”where is the banana” ”show me the car” all the time while you are looking at something else.
The important point is to follow your child’s interest and use methods to encourage your child to produce words.
When your child notices that s/he can get what s/he wants and a lot of smiles from you by using words-like sounds, this will motivate your child to speak more too!
The techniques that I will mention here do not replace speech therapy. If your child has other developmental issues other than late talking, consult a medical professional.
Follow your child’s interest
An important principle of language development is that children learn words about the things that interested them.
Keep this in mind when you use any of the tips that you will read below.
You should be encouraging your child to talk about the things that s/he is interested in.
Following your child’s interest will give you great teaching opportunities!
Children learn by imitating. They listen to your words and watch your face to learn. But how to encourage your child to imitate you if s/he is not doing it?
By imitating your child!
Imitating your child and modeling your child to imitate you will allow your child to develop fundamental communication skills such as turn-taking.
If your child imitates you, this will also give your child opportunities to learn new things.
Create communication opportunities (or temptations)
If your 2-year-old child is not talking much but communicating with you but in different ways, then it is time to create more communication temptations that will require talking.
Let’s say your child is dragging you to the kitchen and pointing at the water bottle and make a sound instead of saying ‘’water’’ (it can be anything similar, wa, wawa, wata). You can model the word ‘’water’’ a few times each time you give water to your child. Saying ‘’water’’ ‘’do you want water?’’ ‘’you are asking for water’’ and similar will help your child hear this word many times in a relevan context.
When you give water to your child, you can also keep it close to your face where your child can see it and say ‘’water’’ slowly.
If your child tries to imitate you, don’t forget to reward this. The reward in this case would be giving him/her the water bottle and also showing that you are happy to hear your child’s attempts. Do this instead of expecting your child to say ”water” or ”water, please” perfectly.
Be patient and wait for your child to digest everything. Next time when you ask ‘’what do you want’’ wait more and see if your child will try to say something. You can always wait and model later again if your child does not say anything. Do it slooooowly and caaaaalmly.
Another thing you can do is to put the things a bit away from your child or inside the box that s/he can’t open. This will make your child ask for help and we want them to ask for help by actually ‘asking’.
To find out more examples of these simple techniques that you can use anytime with any kind of activity, check this free guide I prepared for you!
The best way of supporting your child’s language skills is to be at your child’s level first.
From there, carry him/her higher step by step.
You can see an example of step by step progression what to do for your child to ask for help to open a toy box:
- ‘’What do you want?’’ ‘’Should I open’’ ‘’oppppeeen’’ ‘’open’’ ‘’I opened!!’’ and opened the box to give what your child wants.
- After asking ‘’what do you want?’’ wait for your child to say something. If s/he says nothing, after waiting bring the box next to you mouth and again make a big O with your mouth as if you will say ‘’open’’. It may or may not work in the beginning, but it is a good way to cue your child to say ‘’open’’. If your child does not say anything, keep modeling a few times. Repetition is the key!
- When your child can say ‘’open’’ always reward your child by opening the box and showing that you are happy. Every small step counts!
- Another time while saying ‘’open’’ bring the box next your month so that your child can observe your face and mouth.
- When your child can say ‘’open’’ it is time to carry these skills one step forward. This time you can expand your child’s utterance by saying’ ‘’open the box’’ ‘’box open’’ and similar.
This is a tiny example of how you can create communication temptations and encourage your child to say something.
Another technique to do this is to give choices to your child. It will not only tempt your child to say something but it will also give your child a sense of control in his/her choices. Nice, isn’t it?
WHEN TO CONSULT A SPEECH AND LANGUAGE THERAPIST?
”When should I consult a speech and language therapist for my bilingual child?”
If you have read what I shared above and have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, then the answer is ‘’the earlier, the better’’.
Hanen Center, which is a very established resource of early speech and language development, suggests that the following are the warning signs of language development.
Consider consulting a speech and language therapist if you child does not:
- Respond to his/her name and does not babble making different sounds by 12 months
- Produce any words and does not point to the known objects by 15 months,
- Answer you with gestures and does not produce 20 words by 18 months,
Speech therapy usually takes one hour a week! But there are many more hours that s/he will be spending with you. Why not make use of time to help your child the best way you can?
- Produce 100 words and does not imitate some of your actions by 24 months
- Produce 300 words and makes a lot of grammatical mistakes by 30 months
- Ask questions and produce short sentences by 3 years
- Tell simple stories by 4 years
You can see ASHA’s (American Speech and Hearing Association) charts for warning signs of speech and language development in bilingual children here.
Late talking and developmental language disorder (or impairment) are not the same things. But children with developmental language disorders are generally late talkers.
The beautiful thing is, it is not that hard to support your child’s language development.
Keep in mind that consulting a speech therapist should not stop you from supporting your child’s language development at home, outside, or wherever you go.
You do not need to buy new things.
Use you have at home and the things you already do together.
Some reliable references that you might enjoy reading later:
- Bilingualism in Early Years: What the Science Says
- What Clinicians Need to Know About Bilingual Language Development
- Bilingualism in Young Children: Separating Fact From Fiction
- Six Principles of Language Development: Implications for Second Language Learners
Buket Oztekin has an M.A. in speech and language therapy and a Ph.D. in linguistics. She works with bilingual children and investigates their language development. She coaches parents of bilingual children and connects them with other parents to spread knowledge and experience. Her goal with creating LingoBalance is to turn what the research says into bitesize information and activities for parents to use with their kiddos anytime, anywhere.