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.

References:

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 http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/The-Advantages-of-Being-Bilingual/

-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. **