Teaching your child two languages at once is admirable.
It’s not always easy – but it is so worth it to be able to open up the doors of two cultures at such a young age. Your reasons why you want to teach bilingualism to your baby might be different from ours, but in the end we are all navigating this process together.
Along the way there might be some questions and concerns. Today I am going to address the concern of whether or not there is a possible negative effect of speech delay due to teaching your baby two languages.
In this article, I will:
1. Define bilingualism and speech delay
2. List the pros and cons of raising your child in a bilingual household
3. Answer FAQ’s on speech delay and bilingualism
4. Provide some additional reading if you are still interested in more information on the effects of bilingualism and speech delay.
What does being bilingual mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, bilingualism is fluency in, or use of, two languages.
A delay in speech is when a child isn’t developing their speech, language, and vocabulary at the rate that is expected for their age range.
Speech delay in toddlers
We know all children develop at different rates, but as a rough guide by their 2nd birthday they should have between 50 and 100 words in their total vocabulary.
For parents who have taught their child sign language, their pediatrician will probably count both their verbal as well as their signed words. The same is considered if you have taught your child two languages.
According to the Family Doctor website, speech delay affects as many as 10% of preschool age children.
Furthermore, on the Healthy Children website, it states that “the development of language can be one of the most varying and difficult to diagnose when it comes to gauging a child’s development”.
Speech development is not learned in a straight line, it tends to come in waves.
You might see your child learn a number of new words in one week; and then you will hear them repeat those same words over and over for weeks and weeks before they learn a new set of words. These spurts and then practice is very normal and is what can make this area of development hard to judge if a child is delayed in their speech development.
This is also why it can be so varying when trying to gauge your child’s development and whether or not he is on target for his age group.
Benefits of bilingualism
There are many benefits involved in teaching your child two languages at once.
For us, we want to teach Mia both of our native languages; English and Russian.
You might be in a similar situation to us if you and your partner are of different nationalities. Or you could be an expat living abroad and want to teach your child your home language as well as the native language in your current country.
Our global society today is getting smaller and smaller, annd teaching your child two languages can open so many doors down the road for them in their adult years.
Some benefits of bilingualism, according to ASHA, include:
• Listening better to others
• Communicating with others
• Better problem solving skills
• Being able to use information in new ways
• Learning new words better and faster
• Learning reading skills better
• Being better at putting words into categories, such as “food” and “toys”
In a New York Times article, “Why Bilinguals are Smarter,” they looked at a research study from 2004 that showed that bilingual preschoolers excelled at solving certain puzzles better than their peers who only spoke one language.
The article also pointed out that researchers are changing their stance on whether or not learning two languages at once can interfere in their academic studies.
It was once thought that bilingualism could be a distraction in your child’s education. Now, they are seeing that this is not the case, and instead it actually helps them in other areas – such as communication skills and problem solving.
There are other articles on Bilingua Baby which talk about the health, cultural and soclai benefits of being bilingual as well as the benefits it can bring to the workplace and the advantages of bilingual education once your child starts school.
Disadvantages of bilingualism
Along with the benefits of learning two languages at an early age, there can also be some cons that come with teaching your child two languages at such an early age.
According to the Family Doctor website, your brain has to work harder to be able to interpret and use two languages at once.
While making your brain work harder is not bad in itself, it might just slow down your child’s responses as they are learning new words in both languages. This slower response is what has led researchers in the past to classify bilingual children with speech delay.
Researchers today, however, are finding that they are not behind their monolingual peers; they simply have to work twice as hard to formulate their response to a question and therefore might take a little while longer.
Psychology Today describes it as similar to that feeling you get when you are searching for a word you want to use and can’t quite remember it. This searching for words can cause a slight delay (they described it as milliseconds) when speaking in a conversation.
A bit like having those ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’ moments!
I found another research study online from 2012 that looked at 66 studies regarding bilingualism in children, and the possible affects it might have on speech delay.
In a nutshell they found that “there was limited evidence to suggest that bilingual children develop speech at a slower rate than their monolingual peers.”
You can find more information on the website at The International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. The study is called: The influence of bilingualism on speech production: A systematic review; and it is quite interesting.
Psychology Today also showed that any disadvantages bilinguals might have with their monolingual peers are very minor with regard to developing their vocabulary.
They pointed out that bilingual children might have fewer vocabulary words in each language; however, they usually have an equal amount of total words as their single language peer age group.
Conversely, this article pointed out that the cognitive advantages of learning two languages as a child actually gains more of an advantage with better executive functioning skills than monolingual children.
Enhanced executive control can boost your bilingual baby’s ability in areas such as multi-tasking, inhibition control, memory, and cognitive flexibility – or the ability to switch between areas, concepts, and tasks. This ability can be directly attributed to their ability to switch their language depending on with whom they are speaking.
And it can translate to advantageous critical thinking skills that will greatly benefit your child later on in life.
1. What is speech delay?
In summary, speech delay is when a child is not developing in their speech or vocabulary on pace with their age group.
2. What are some benefits of bilingualism?
Benefits of teaching your baby two languages at once can include: better cognitive and executive functioning skills, ability to multi-task, better memory skills, as well as better communication, listening and reading skills.
3. What are some common disadvantages of bilingualism?
Due to learning two languages, historically some children were classified as having speech delay due to slower responses to questions or fewer words in a given language.
These disadvantages have been disputed with recent studies; and children are showing that they still have as many total vocabulary words as their peers between their two languages as monolingual children have in one.
4. What is cognitive flexibility?
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between tasks and concepts easily.
This comes from switching between languages in their home at an early age. Researchers are showing that these higher executive functioning skills outweigh possible side effects of speech delay or slower responses as the child formulates their answer in the correct language for that conversation.
After reading the research in regards to speech delay and bilingualism, I have found that the possibility of my daughter maybe having a delay in her speech is not enough of a negative deterrence against my opening up the amazing world of bilingualism.
At the time of writing the article, Mia is 2 years and 3 months and it’s amazing to see how she can mix and match between English and Russian.
Russian is definitely the dominant language but she can understand and speak many words in both languages, including many nouns, adjectives and even colors, which I find extraordinary.
To put your mind at ease, here’s Patricia Ruiz, a Speech Pathologist at Miami Speech Institute, talking about some myths related to bilingual kids and the relation with speech delays.
The advantageous far outweigh the possible disadvantages in my opinion. It also seems like speech delay can be treated accordingly, and this disadvantage shouldn’t really hinder her academic progress as a young child.
On the other hand, exposing her to both of her parents’ native languages and cultures will open many more doors than a possible speech delay will close.
You will need to come to your own conclusions as to whether or not there is enough of a concern from the disadvantages from speech delay and bilingualism.
I hope to have provided enough information for you to make an educated choice.
I tried to provide both sides of the argument so as to give enough information on this topic. There are some additional reading resources below in case you are interested in learning more on this topic.
There is so much information on this subject and it can be very interesting to see the alternatives of the varying pros and cons for bilingualism and its effect on possible speech delay.