Having a language disorder can be a very negative experience for a child. But it is not always easy to spot it, especially for bilinguals. Bilingual children’s language development is more complex than monolinguals’ since many external factors influence it. If your child has a language delay or developmental language disorder, early intervention is a must! But how and when to suspect if your bilingual child has a language disorder or delay? In this post, you will learn what to look out for to find out if you should consult a speech and language therapist.
If you have a bilingual child you have asked yourself at least once: Is my child going to have a language disorder? Are bilinguals late talkers? Will my child be a late talker too? Does bilingualism cause language delay or disorder? And of course, ‘’How do I know if my child has a language disorder?’’ or ‘’How do I know if my child should see a speech and language therapist?’’
Before we start, I want to assure you that bilingualism does not cause language delay or disorder.
You don’t need to worry about your child’s language development only because your child is growing up with more than one language. In contrast, being bilingual has many advantages. How amazing is that?
But, it does not mean that your bilingual child is immune to having a language disorder or delay.
Like any other child, your bilingual child can have a language delay, disorder, or a speech-sound disorder.
If you have reasons to worry about your bilingual child’s language development, there is no need to wait to consult a therapist until it’s too late.
Cover your ears when you hear:
”Bilingualism causes language problems”
”Bilingual children confuse their languages”
‘’Children can’t manage two or more languages at the same time”
”Your child has to speak only one language”
”Wait until your child is 5, 7 if your child is not talking yet, it will be alright!’”
First of all, if you are worried about your child’s language development, listen to your intuition and know that your concern is valid.
But be informed too. Know that bilingualism is not a cause of a language disorder or delay. Therefore, you don’t need to worry about your child’s bilingualism.
When should you worry about your bilingual child’s language development then?
Let’s look at what happens if a bilingual child has a language disorder or delay.
”WHEN TO CONSULT A SPEECH AND LANGUAGE THERAPIST FOR MY BILINGUAL CHILD?”
There is a consensus that bilingual or multilingual children with language impairment have problems in all their languages, not only one!
To understand this, I want to talk about how bilingual children learn their languages first. Bilingual language development has many phases and is different from monolingual language development. Let’s say that it is a tiny bit more complex.
Alright, dear parent, now read the titles below and see if you can recognize your child.
Although being in one of these groups does not necessarily mean that your child has 100% language delay or disorder, it is still to be aware of the warning signs and have your child assessed by a speech and language therapist. Just to be on the safe side so that your child can get the support s/he needs as early as possible if needed.
‘’My child’s language is behind in general’’
If children are learning more than one language at the same time, we expect them to follow the language development milestones in all the languages.
In many aspects, monolingual and bilingual children have many commonalities in their language development. When you want to know if your child is on track on the early childhood language milestones, think about your child’s stronger (dominant) language first.
Let’s make this clear first.
Even though a bilingual child may be acquiring two (or more) languages since birth, the languages can develop differently.
That is exactly why it is not the best idea to compare the language skills of a bilingual child with a monolingual.
Why can it be the case?
There are only 24 hours in a day.
Your child may be hearing the languages in different places, times and from different people.
Imagine that your child has 12 awake hours. While a monolingual child will be hearing only one language in these 16 hours, you child will hear different languages in these 16 hours. A monolingual child will be hearing only one language from a variety of people in variety of places. Your bilingual child may hear a different language
Depending on which language your child hears and uses the most often, your child’s language skills will be different.
For instance, although monolingual children start combining words around age 2, this can be a bit later for bilingual children. Also, bilingual children may know fewer words in one language compared to monolinguals. But their total vocabulary in all the languages they speak should be like monolinguals’.
Is your child following the milestones? When did s/he start saying words? Does s/he start communication, understand directions, and express what s/he wants in an age-appropriate way?
If your child is not able to do some of the things on the milestones list, does it mean that s/he has a language disorder or delay? Nope! But if you notice that your child is behind in many aspects of the age-appropriate development, then it’s a good excuse to consult a speech therapist.
Download this free guide to learn about language development milestones from 0 to 6 years and how to support your child’s language skills at each age.
‘’My child’s language is very delayed in the language we always speak at home’’
Your child may not speak the majority language yet.
The only way to see whether your child’s language is developing typically is via the home language development.
The same principle applies. Check whether your child is following the language milestones or showing warning signs.
If your child is not on track with one or two items on the list, it does not mean that your child has a language disorder. But if your child is generally behind, then it is a good idea to consult a speech therapist or a medical professional.
Another thing to look for is your child’s comprehension. How well can your child understand what you say? Research shows that children with language disorders may have problems in comprehension too. By comprehension, think about your child’s understanding of simple directions and questions.
And important note about seeing a speech therapist in this scenario…
Since your child may not be speaking the majority language well yet, you need to find a speech therapist who speaks your child’s home language. BUT is it always possible? Not always.
In this case, the speech therapist will not be able to assess your child’s language in the home language.
As a parent, you will be the bridge between the therapist and your child. Don’t worry! It is still possible to give the therapist as much information about your child’s language as possible.
What are you going to tell to a speech therapist if the therapist and your child does not speak the same language?
Read this post to learn-> Bilingual child at speech therapy: 7 things parents should know.
‘’My child is very slow in learning the second language despite all the effort we make’’
There is a consensus that bilingual children with language impairment have problems in two of their languages, not only one!
But what if your child’s language is developing normally in one language but not in the other even though your child has been exposed to that language for a long time?
‘’My 7-year-old child has been hearing the home language (Italian) since birth. We always speak Italian at home and his Italian is developing well. We can communicate, have a clear conversation and he can tell stories and ask questions. He has been in preschool since age 3. He is there at least 6 hours a day. The only language he hears at the preschool is Swedish. He also gets extra help Swedish but he still doesn’t want to say a word! It takes so long for him to learn a word, let alone speaking. All his peers who started at the same time are doing much better. Is it normal to have such a slow development in the second language?’’
Some children I have worked with did not fall into the typical definition of bilingual language development and disorder.
They had a very long-time and intensive immersion in a language, yet they had a strong resistance against speaking that language. This was a very different pattern compared to many other bilingual children I have known.
Can we say that these children had a language disorder? According to the definition, no. But their language development patterns were unusual. These children’s language experience was negative.
If this sounds familiar to you, I would not shy away from asking for support.
When to see a speech and language therapist if you have a bilingual child? If your child:
- Is delayed in language milestones and speech production,
- Has difficulties understanding simple directions without pointing and using gestures,
- Has difficulties in learning new words,
- Does not initiate communication,
- Can not follow the topic of the conversation or if s/he gives irrelevant answers to questions,
- Can not make himself understood when he wants something and gets very frustrated.
- Has problems with pronunciation that affects his intelligibility.
Language impairment can have some other warning signs that are not directly related to language problems. For instance, did you know that late talking and attention difficulties can be risk factors for developmental language disorders?
Check this post for more details on that to see if your child displays one of the other signs.
Let me know in the comments if you are worried about your multilingual child’s language development, and why?
Don’t forget to share this post with your loved ones with multilingual kiddos 🙂
Best of luck to your family and your child!
See you back here soon.
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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.