In the United States, more than 20% of school-aged children speak a language other than English at home. As soon as I learn that a client is exposed to more than one language I always make sure to answer any questions related to bilingual language development. Often times, I encounter families that speak more than one language at home, but they decide to only expose their child to one language in fear that speaking more than one language will confuse their toddler. Other times, I meet families that attribute their child’s language delay solely to the fact that they are exposed to more than one language. Here are a few of the most common questions related to bilingual language development that I have encountered as a speech-language pathologist and an Early Intervention provider.
Question: “Is it okay that I expose my child to more than one language at home?”
Answer: Absolutely. In fact, research states that there is a “critical period” – or, a window of time during early childhood when it is easiest to learn a language.
Question: “My child is 2 years old and is not producing any words. They’re exposed to English and Spanish at home, so it’s okay that they’re not talking yet. Right?”
Answer: Wrong! Though a child who is simultaneously learning more than one language may start talking a little later than monolingual children, they should still begin talking within the normal range. If your toddler is 2 and not producing any words at all, this definitely warrants a speech-language evaluation.
Question: “My child frequently goes back and forth between languages when they’re talking to me. Is this normal?”
Answer: Yes. This is called “code-switching.” “Code-switching” is typical and it is a process that both children and adults who speak more than one language experience. Children might do this when they know a word in one language but not the other. This should not be looked at as a sign of language delay or confusion.
Question: “I want my child to be bilingual. What can I do at home to make sure my child learns both languages successfully?”
Answer: Do what is most natural and comfortable to your child and your family. Some families prefer that one parent speak to their child in one language while the other parent talks exclusively in another. Some families decide to mix languages amongst caregivers. Whatever approach you decide to take, trust that it can lead to bilingualism.
Julie Euyoque MA CCC-SLP