Language Development in Bilingual Children

Some parents we have come in contact with over the years ask us, “Should my child be exposed to multiple languages?” Approximately 20% of the U.S. population is bilingual, with most people speaking Spanish and English. At one of the schools I serve in Tennessee, 52% of the students are Hispanic. Many of them speak Spanish or at least have exposure to the language. Below are the stages of learning two languages simultaneously, and what to expect regarding speech and language. 

Stage 1

In the first stage, children may have different language systems, vocabulary in particular , that they use whether due to context or functionality. Approximately 30% of bilingual toddler vocabularies are comprised of the same word in both languages such as cat in English and gato in Spanish (Nicoladis & Genesee, 1996). However, the other 70% of their vocabulary has words that are only known in one language which is why a Spanish word could be used during a conversation in English. There is some evidence that learning two (or more) languages delays children’s discrimination of speech sounds in words (e.g. big vs. dig), but the delay is very minimal.

Stage 2

With stage two, the child has developed two separate vocabularies but may apply the same syntax, or rules regarding grammar, to both languages. As with any child, the simpler sentence structures will be learned first before ones that are more complex.

Stage 3

At this stage, the child has two separate vocabulary and grammar systems. There still may be some crossover between languages, but it is primarily confined to grammar errors. A child, if there is constant exposure to both languages, tends to reach this stage around age seven.

It has been suggested that learning two languages can be confusing and detrimental to a child; however, research has not supported this notion. In fact, according to the American-Speech Language Hearing Association, the benefits of bilingualism include: learning new words, learning reading skills, coming up with solutions to problems, listening to others, and connecting to others. By exposing a child to multiple languages the child gains insight into another culture. In regards to speech therapy, a child who is bilingual can have speech and language problems just like other peers. If there is a speech or language disorder, the errors should be observed in both languages. A trained speech language pathologist should able to recognize a disorder versus a difference based on the combination of two languages.


Nicoladis, E. & Genesee (1996). Word awareness in second language learners and bilingual children. Language Awareness, 5(2), 80-89.

Owens, Jr., R. E. (2012). Language development: An introduction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education

The advantages of being bilingual (n.d.) Retrieved from

-Erin Norwig, M.A. CF-SLP

**If you have any questions concerning your child’s speech and language skills, please contact Curlee Communication Consultants at (865) 693-5622. We have a team of experienced speech-language pathologists that would love discuss options for your family. **

Traditional Articulation Therapy Explained

You know your child is receiving services at school to work on their speech sounds, but every time you ask your child what they do in therapy, they say, “we work on making funny sounds” or “we just say words and play”. What is your child doing in therapy all day?

Articulation therapy or speech sound therapy is working on the placement of articulators (lips, tongue) inside of their mouth to correctly produce their sounds. To master these sounds, speech language pathologists will break down sounds into 7 different levels.

  1. Isolation Level: If possible, without adding a vowel, your child will work on producing the correct sound in isolation (ex. s or t)
  2. Syllable Level: At this stage we add vowels either before or after the sound to practice making the target sound (ex. ko, koo, kay, key, ki). This helps them put their articulators in the correct placement making the correct sound.
  3. Word Level: Here the target sound is introduced in single words at the beginning, middle, and end of the word (ex. /k/: cat, jacket, back). Many different sounds affect our ability to produce the target sound correctly when its position in the word differs.
  4. Phrase Level: Now that your child has mastered the target sounds in words we add a few words together including a word that contains the target sound in the beginning, middle, and/or end (ex. the black cat).
  5. Sentence Level: Here the target sound will be addressed in grammatically correct sentences (ex. The black cat sat on the wall).
  6. Reading Level: Speech language pathologists may skip this level. Usually this level is addressed when the child is having difficulty carrying over their skill from the sentence level to conversation.
  7. Conversation Level: At this stage your child has almost mastered the target sound. We observe your child producing the target sound correctly during games, conversations, and other tasks, correcting their errors as they occur.

Conversation level can be the most crucial part of determining a child’s readiness for discharge from speech therapy. This level involves a child no longer needing “cues” or “reminders” to correct their speech, but rather requires the child to monitor and correct (if needed) their own speech. It also involves a variety of conversational partners, in various settings, and therefore carryover of their newly acquired speech skills is crucial. After a child has mastered the conversation level in therapy, they may be observed in a classroom setting to ensure that the sound has generalized or that they are successful in using the sound correctly outside of the therapy room. If successful, they will be discharged from therapy for the target sound.

If you continue to have questions about what your child does in therapy sessions, you should speak with your child’s therapist for more detailed information!

Natalie Keller, M.A., CF-SLP

**If you have any concerns with your child’s speech, language, hearing and/or feeding development, please contact Curlee Communication Consultants at (865) 693-5622. We have a team of experienced speech-language pathologists that would love to meet with you and discuss options for your child. **