Don’t worry- learning two or more languages as a child does not cause speech and language disorders. What learning multiple languages as a child can do influence the way that each language is learned. Why does this matter? As your child learns his or her languages, some normal aspects of bilingual language acquisition may stand out to you- for instance you may wonder why your child is often silent in conversation. You may worry that your child has a disorder when in actuality this is a normal characteristic of bilingual language learning. Inversely, sometimes speech and language issues in bilingual children are excused as normal when speech therapy is actually needed. This guide will take you through some of the normal characteristics of bilingual speech acquisition as well as signs that you may want to take your child to a speech-language pathologist (SLP).
Note: This page is for informational purposes only. You should consult with your doctor or speech pathologist for diagnosis and recommendations on treatment.
Normal Characteristics of Bilingual Language Acquisition
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the organization that certifies SLPs, notes the following normal characteristics of learning multiple languages:
- If two languages are being learned simultaneously, errors may go back and forth between the two languages. This is because your child’s first language may influence how they speak or say sounds in other languages.
- Silence while the secondary language is being spoken by others. Your child is listening to the language to learn it, and can probably understand the language better than they can speak it.
- Switching between languages over sentences.
- Loss of proficiency in their first language if they stop using it.
Understanding When to Reach out to an SLP
Some language and learning difficulties may be harder to spot in bilingual children because it is assumed that the difficulty is attributed to learning new languages. If you suspect that your child has a speech or language issue, you should take them to a speech pathologist for assessment.
Here are some ways to spot some of the more common speech and language issues that can be either overlooked or misdiagnosed in bilingual children:
According to The Stuttering Foundation, no data suggests that bilingualism affects stuttering. Stuttering often affects one language more prominently than the other, and your child may stutter in different ways in each language. Sometimes though, what may be suspected as stuttering could just be lack of proficiency in the “weaker” language.
You may notice stuttering in your bilingual child when he or she is having trouble finding the right word, using both languages in the same sentence (normal in bilingual language development), or while speaking in more complex sentences. These can all increase stuttering in a child who stutters.
If you notice the signs of stuttering in your child, follow The Stuttering Foundation’s prevention guidelines and pay attention to when it happens, especially in your child’s strongest language. Remember to:
- Speak to your child in one language at a time
- Allow your child to mix vocabulary between languages but respond by using the same word in the language being used
- If six months go by and stuttering is still apparent, make an appointment with a speech pathologist
While some bilingual children are quiet because they are trying to learn a language, silence can also be caused by anxiety that prevents them from speaking in certain situations (selective mutism). Bilingualism doesn’t cause selective mutism, but the anxieties a child already has about speaking can be triggered when speaking a language they are less comfortable with. This can affect the child’s first language as well.
Detecting selective mutism in your bilingual child can be tricky because many bilingual children go through a “silent period” when learning their second language. According to ASHA, selective mutism is signified by a child not speaking in certain situations for over a month, even though they have the language skills needed to speak. If your child meets ASHA’s criteria, you should have them evaluated.
A speech impairment may not impact both languages the same because languages are structured differently. Any speech impairment that a child has occurs across all languages spoken, but different languages use different sounds at different times.
If your child is having difficulty pronouncing certain sounds, consult a speech pathologist.
The signs in bilingual children with dyslexia are the same as monolingual children, but are often spotted later because difficulties the child is having are attributed to struggling with learning a language.
If your child is having difficulty in both languages with learning words and numbers, understanding reading, understanding sounds, and mixing up letters and numbers, they may have dyslexia. Bilingual children who are suspected to have dyslexia should be tested in both of their languages.
Getting the Right SLP
Depending on you child’s proficiency in his or her primary and secondary languages, a bilingual speech pathologist may be ideal if available. If there is no SLP available to meet your child’s language needs, an interpreter may be used. It is hard to pinpoint when a bilingual SLP is needed- each case is unique.
According to ASHA, a bilingual SLP knows 2 languages at at least near native proficiency.
Most of the time, a school has at least on SLP on staff, and your child can get diagnosis and treatment for free during the school day. Reach out to your child’s school to see how they can help.
Bilingual Speech Pathology Resources
ASHA: ASHA Provides information on treatment, diagnosis, and assessment of bilingual children, along with the research that supports what we know.
Bilinguistics: This site is packed with information for professionals, schools, and families. Created by a bilingual practice in Austin, Texas, the entire site is full of valuable information.
Smart Speech Therapy: Author Tatyana Elleseff specializes in bilingual speech pathology and writes about the subject often on her blog.
Bilingual Therapies: Another great site full of bilingual-specific speech pathology information, with a great list of related resources.