Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Bilingualism and speech delay. How can you help?


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bilingualism and speech delay.
How can you help?

Are bilinguals or multilinguals any different from monolinguals when it comes to speaking? Well, yes and no. Bilinguals might start speaking somewhat later; however, the latest research totally rejects a clinical language delays in bilingual or multilingual children as a result of exposure to two or more languages simultaneously.

In "Language development in bilingual babies: no delays, just a few adjustments" François Rochon talks about research of Professor Christopher Fennell of the University of Ottawa's School of Psychology:

Research has shown [...], that monolingual toddlers learn to distinguish similar-sounding words at around 17 months old. Professor Fennell has found that bilingual infants start to do this at 20 months. 
Prof. Fennell doesn't at all believe the "delay" in sound distinction is a hindrance. Bilingual babies are simply learning an adaptive strategy because they're facing a more challenging language environment. That strategy sees them unconsciously ignore some of the sound cues they receive so that they can concentrate on matching the word with the object it represents.

What does it mean for you as a parent?

It means that you should not worry that two or more languages are too much for a child, and that you should focus on how to help your child and ease that task of connecting words with objects. Do not think about it as something not natural and extra work for you. Look at this the same way you look at helping your child keep his balance while he is making his first steps. Come down to your child's level of understanding when you read or talk to him; proving extra explanations. According to the researchers, a 4 month old baby is already learning to connect words with objects. So start early!

Point on the objects while talking about them, and do the same on the pictures in the books, following a story as you read it to your child. You need to catch new words and follow on them explaining their meanings. I often use Google to find pictures of words  that are not pictured in books we read, or when I'd like to provide some extra explanation and show something in details. Pointing is a powerful tool for creating word-object connection. So make a point to point :)  Read also  How to read to a baby?
Researchers also found that children have difficulties to distinguish one languages from another, if the languages you expose your child to belong to the same rhythm category  (such as English and German (stress-timed), French and Spanish (syllable timed), Japanese and Tamil (mora-timed)) . Deborah D.K. Ruuskanen, Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vaasa, Finland, and mother of three bilingual children says:
if there is more than one language in the baby's home environment, then the baby will be learning first to process and separate the different languages, before talking begins.  

As you probably already experienced yourself, there are natural obstacles in the language learning process. So be ready to face this challenge and simplify the language learning task for your child by being consistent. Speak only the language you choose to speak with your child.

If you decided to speak only one language to your child - then do it all the time, without mixing with other languages in direct interactions.

If you, as one person, decided to speak to your child two or more languages, think of the best strategy to separate the languages one from another. You could alternate days or even weeks when languages are spoken to your child, for instance, one day / week Italian only and another day / week -  Hungarian. You could also assign a language to a certain activity: bathing, family meals, playgroups ...  Think of some possible, appropriate to the child's age sign that you can give to your baby, to help him to understand what languages you speak and when. It could be a different color bow in your hair,  a scarf, different picture on the wall. Just use your imagination!

You also need to be consistent with the language you speak to others at front of your child. If you decided to speak to your spouse other language then to your child, please make an effort and speak only that language. This brings structure to the language recognition and, hopefully, helps the child to sort out the languages fast.

Nothing dramatic will happen if you mix the languages. There is a number of parents that does it and they have a bilingual or multilingual child afterwards. However, my position on it: if you dedicate your time to your child, why not just take care of the language consistency part as well to speed up and simplify language learning. I found that naming the languages with their proper name helps in the language separation process.

As you see, there are many variables that can affect when your child starts speaking. My children started speaking within the same time frame as monolinguals do. Since my concentration was on speaking Russian language, their first words and sentences were mostly in Russian.  Interestingly, both children started speaking full sentences in Italian without usual long practice of words. They simply transferred the knowledge about building the sentences from one language into another by modeling the Italian speakers.

If you are pregnant, you might like to know that it is also beneficial to speak the languages you are going to use with your child during the last trimester. Research shows that infants are able to show preferences to and thus, recognition of the languages they were spoken to during the pregnancy after they were born.

When did your bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child start speaking? What do you think helped or delayed the child's speaking in your particular case? Share your thoughts to help other parents who read this page.

Useful Resources:
Language development milestones by ASHA - American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

BE AWARE! Your child can have fluid in the middle ear (otitis media) without you noticing it!  
As it can cause absolutely NO PAIN and your child will not complain. 
READ MORE HERE:  Speech delay due to fluid collection in the middle ear. 

Books about helping children to talk:

Talking with Your Toddler: 75 Fun Activities and Interactive Games that Teach Your Child to Talk   by Teresa Laikko M.S. CCC-SLP and Laura Laikko M.S. CF-SLP

Late-Talking Children: A Symptom or a Stage?  by Stephen M. Camarata 

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You might also like:

Raising a Bilingual Child : Setting Your Priorities From The Start.

9 steps of raising a bilingual child successly

Whay to learn the language: A family vacation, multilingual style. Are you in? 

Can babies distinguish foreign languages?  

The Best Way to Start Building Your Bilingual Child's Vocabulary. 


  1. I think the title is not correct, as the article has to do with language comprehension and not when actual first words will be spoken. Our toddler is 25 months, and we are raising him trilingual. He has a big vocabulary in all 3 languages, and understands even complex commands. However he's not spoken any word yet (in any language) except general babbling, which is kind of a concern to us.

    1. Thank you for your message! I understand your concerns. There are many things to worry about, especially if this is your first child! What languages do you speak to your son? What is the primary caregiver language? It is sometimes hard for parents to clearly understand the first child's words due to the sound mixing of different languages. I noticed how words pronunciation has changed in my son's case from correct one into incorrect and back to correct. Does your child say "mama", "papa", "more" or absolutely nothing at all? Your child might be a late-bloomer; however, I would not wait long and seek an evaluation from a speech-language specialist that specializes in multilingual children. It is better to be safe then sorry.

    2. Thank you for your comments and sorry for the delay in responding. We all speak to our son in our native language, so I (father) speak to him in Greek, my wife in Russian, and grandma who spends some afternoons with him in English. Also me and my wife communicate in English in the house and public as we don't know each others native language. Out child does say mama, daddy, grandma, plus very few simple words, in total we can understand about 10 words. I know this is very lacking compared to what a 2 1/2 toddler should be able to say. On the other hand he has a huge vocabulary in all 3 languages, can recognize many objects and ideas and follow fairly complex commands. To me it seems that he simply does not want to say anything. If I ask him to repeat a word I say, he never does and instead avoids the request by laughing or rubbing his eyes.

    3. my toddler does the EXACT same things!!!!!
      I speak to him in English, my husband in Spanish (our mother's tongue) and my mom in French (my mother's tongue is also Spanish).
      our 2 1/2 understands everything but just doesn't want to say much other than aprox 10 words.

  2. We are raising our children trilingual (Russian, Turkish, and English) and our 4 year old does not form sentences with any degree of complexity when compared to his classmates in preschool. Interestingly, though, he has no confusion when pointing out animals or objects to me (in Turkish), to my wife (in Russian), or to his teacher (in English). From our circle of friends and family, he knows who to address in English, Russian, or Turkish. Also, at this point, if I ask him, in Turkish, "Count in Russian" he does so (odin, dva...). But again, the complexity of sentence structures is very basic.

    Our two year old is just now saying basic words. However, in his case, he is able to point to various facial organs when asked in any of the three languages. He also follows basic commands (like come, go, give me a kiss) in any of the three languages.

    1. Sinan, thank you for sharing! I see that your son is really good in keeping the track of what language to speak and when :) I would try to read more to him and talk about stories you read to develop more complex sentences. Please keep us updated on your children's progress. I wish you good luck and I hope you received my answer to the question you left in the other post.

    2. How interesting! Our son is only 13 months and we are also using 3 languages at home. Babaanne and baba in Turkish, me in Russian, English (and some Turkish).

  3. I was actually worried about not-speaking of my 2-years old son. He understand really everything in czech and italian too but he use only something like twenty words. And he is sometimes really angry if I show him some object and say in czech what is it. So now a say him "this is ... in czech language" and I see that he just accept it better. So wish me good luck with this my personal method.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Zuzana! You write that your child understands Italian and Czech. Are you raising a bilingual child? What is the community language?
      I see your child is on the right track :) You could try to put together some simple puzzles with him and talk about the picture and its details. Reading books with very detailed pictures is good too, as you can discuss what's on a picture, talk about characters and name everything you see. Look for Sven Nordqvist's books in Czech about Petson and his cat Findus. My kids love them!
      And yes! Good luck with your method and thank you for sharing it with us :) Looking forward to hearing more from you!

  4. We live in New York. I speak Italian (my second language) with my son and my husband speaks English (our first language). We also had a part-time Italian nanny with him for a year. He is now 28 months and understands both languages perfectly. His Italian is a little better than his English, actually.

    I was worried for a little while because he seemed to understand everything but wasn't saying that much. Then around 22 months both languages came exploding forth. He spent maybe a month mixing the two languages into one sentence, i.e., "Let's go see the treno (train)." But then he separated them. So my experience fits with what the above-mentioned research indicates.

    1. Derba, thank you for sharing your experience! It is beautiful that your child is already fully bilingual :) It won't be long before he goes to the Metropolitan opera and enjoys "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" with no need for subtitles ;) My best wishes to you and your family!

  5. Something tells me that those parents who choose to expose their child to more then one language can manage helping the kids with language separation. If it was not their personal decision and the kid gets to know the second or the third language at school, for ex, there might be some problems. Though, according to my experience, building of language competence is something very personal. You might find one child coping with multiple languages easily and the other mixing them until he's 7 even within one family. Each child requires different approach and I personally see no direct connection between the number of languages (until there not more than 3) and the time the kid starts speaking. At least everything is fine in our case. The boy started at 25 months and developed good communication skills by 32 months. He's three now and uses both English and Russian as fluently as the three year old possibly can. He mixes languages when he's been exposed to one of them only for a considerable time and then has to switch. Or when he lacks some specific terms like "dome" of an engine. It's "sukhoparnik" in Russian. I bet you'd use "dome" as well :)

  6. My daughter is 14 months, my mother language is Spanish.
    Husband's language is serbian.I work part time and my mother
    in law takes care of my daughter , my MIL only speask serbian to my baby.I speak
    only spanish to my baby and speak english with my husband I'm trying my best butmI'm very concerned that my
    Daughter is being exposed to much To serbian language ( language that I dont understand)much more than spanish.could I have troble comunicating with my daughter? Any tips?

    1. I understand your concerns. Your daughter receives more input in Serbian than in Spanish. What you can do to support Spanish is to make an effort and read to your daughter every day. I know you are tired after work, but do it no matter what. Reading helps to develop vocabulary. Prepare some Spanish songs for your mother-in-law to play for your child during the day, or even better record a short video of yourself speaking to her. In the video you could point on your body parts, ask her to do it as well, be creative ... It might be silly, but I would even Skype to talk to your daughter during lunch breaks. Also l would look for a Spanish community to join, Spanish language play groups, immersion school or school where Spanish is taught as a foreign language. Plan regular trips to your home country. What is important no matter how things go, do not give up on speaking your mother tongue. Your daughter can benefit from it even if she does not speak it right now. From a receptive bilingual she can turn later into an active one.

  7. I started naming the two languages too. This is Greek and do we say that in Italian? It works. However, it's difficult to constantly speak your MT when interacting with others especially kids in the playground. That's a major problem.

  8. Hello! Thank you for this wonderful blog! We're raising our two kids (2 years old and 4 months old) in 3 languages: English, German and Spanish. Instead of naming the languages, we say " Mummy calls this dog, Daddy calls it Hund and Grandma calls it perro", giving these three people as references to the three languages. What do you think about this approach? Thanks a lot, greetings from the Costa del sol :)

    1. Hey Yolanda, how's been going your trilingual approach for your kids? I'm interested cause in my family we have the same three languages, but my kid is still three week old and I'm doing some research and asking for tips. Gracias!

    2. Hallo Yolanda,
      How's been going your method in your family? I'm asking because I have the same three languages in my family except my kid is only three weeks and I'm doing some research and asking for tips and advice.
      Hope you can tell me more, gracias!

  9. Hello! We are raising our son in 3 languages as well, Czech, Polish and English. He will be 4 in November and has already been attending nursery and starting "big" nursery this week. It appears to us that he has quite substantial vocabulary in all the 3 languages. He has a understanding of quite complex sentences.And yet he is still talking only in his own language with few words only we understand and few phrases in English, which are said so fast that only we can understand (i.e. "look at that", "what did you do"...). We have also noticed that few of these words are totally made up by him. He mimes his requests and notions. He is able to put his message across in such manner that even a strange understands him. The words he says are mostly in English, which is understandable as English is the easiest of our "home lingos". We are still not worried at this point about his speech, but are worried about the possibility that this speech delay might affect his confidence as he is very much aware of the difference in his speech and the speech of his piers at nursery, in the playgroup, playground etc.(unfortunately it has already once ended up in tears and feeling embarrassed). We constantly encourage him and praise him in everything he does and remind him that one day he will be talking even better than the others, because he will be able to do so in three different languages. :)

    1. Hi, I stumbled upon this page and your post just today (2 years later I am sorry!) but since I am now facing the exact same problem with my 4 and a half years old and I do not know if I should take action (start visiting a speech therapist or not), I would be very much interested in hearing how your kid has developed in the meantime. Thanks very much for replying.

    2. Hello, I come across your post three years after. Can you share your experience with me? I am in the exact same situation with my 3.5 years old. Three languages and it create a massive barrier at school. Thanks

  10. Hi,
    I have subscribed to this forum.
    How can I send my inquiry?

  11. Hello, my name is Ami and I have a 6 week old baby. I live in Italy and speak French with my husband. My native tongue is German so I try to speak German to my baby. Since I lived in the states for the majority of my life, English has also become a language I am proficient in if not more than my German. I unintentionally mix English and German when I speak to my baby but am making an effort to only speak German to my baby and read to my baby in English once a day. Will this confuse my baby? I'm so paranoid. My husband speaks Italian but then mixes in some French when talking to the baby since that is the language him and I communicate in. I am scared my child will be completely confused. I want my baby to speak German English and Italian. Any help is appreciated! I am happy to come across this blog and can't wait to start reading all of the articles posted on here. Thank you

  12. We are raising our child with 3 languages: Polish, English and Armenian. I am not sure if I should mix languages at all? We speak Polish at home, live in the USA so English is everywhere and he goes to an Armenian daycare. He is little over 2 years old and mixes some Polish and English when speaking e.g. 'Mommy, look duzy (Polish for "big") truck'. Should I insist on him using only one language in a sentence or when he is addressing us?

  13. Very informative, and nice to read about everyone's experience raising a multilingual child. I have a 14 month old and we are raising him trilingual. My husband speaks French to him, I speak Spanish to him (most of the time, even though I read to him in English often and take him to English play groups), and my husband and I speak a mix of French and English to each other, depending on the day. So far the baby can say mama, papa, and nona (when talking to my mom). Sometimes I have been worried that maybe it is too much for him, but it reassures me that the research says otherwise. Best of luck to everyone!

    1. Hi Yisol,
      Thanks for the warm words!
      What is your country language?

      Children are able to learn several languages from birth without a problem. The fluency level will be most likely different in all three of languages.Just try to focus now more on the language(s) your child will have less exposure in the future.
      Good luck!!!

  14. basically for recreational purposes when you can't take a gander at composed text.text to speech api

  15. My son is 16 months and I speak only Spanish to him and my husband speaks only Portuguese. When my husband and I speak to each other we speak only English. Since I am a stay at home mom he is exposed to Spanish more than the other two languages. What can my husband do to incorporate more Portuguese with him? He works mostly all day and doesn't have much time to interact with him. My son understands both Spanish and Portuguese but not English. He still doesn't speak any words though. Should I be concerned?

  16. My son is 16 months and I speak only Spanish to him and my husband speaks only Portuguese. When my husband and I speak to each other we speak only English. Since I am a stay at home mom he is exposed to Spanish more than the other two languages. What can my husband do to incorporate more Portuguese with him? He works mostly all day and doesn't have much time to interact with him. My son understands both Spanish and Portuguese but not English. He still doesn't speak any words though. Should I be concerned?

  17. Hi. My son is 19 months old. We are living in Australia and I am speaking with him in Slovenian (my mother tounge) and Italian. I separate them in the way that when we are in the car we speak just Italian.
    He seems to understand everything in English and Slovenian, but we he is struggling a bit with the third language. Should I expose him more to it?

    1. It is wonderful that you are raising a trilingual child and speak two languages to him!
      If I understand right from your question, you are the only language input for both Italian and Slovenian languages. And you care for your child to be fluent in the language you give more priority to, which is Slovenian. If my assumptions are correct, you are doing well, by "investing" more time in Slovenian now. Later on, when your child is older and proficient in Slovenian, you can focus more on Italian. It is important to keep the Italian language input constant, even if it is not a lot at the moment.
      At your child's age face to face contact is important for learning language. It is hard to provide it, if you are the car driver. What you could do is to add a play time in Italian, even a very short one as a follow up on whatever you went over in the car.

      Also I would already start looking for a bilingual school or for a school with an Italian language taught as a subject, Italian communities and Italian language teachers.
      When your child goes to school, with all after school activities, it could be hard to find time/ energy to support both languages just all by yourself.
      Let me know if you have more questions.
      Good luck & Happy Holidays to you and your multilingual family!

  18. Interestingly we have a trilingual home with twins! (Not identical) they are currently 2 years and 5 months old. Two boys. Very different personalities. Both are being spoken to in Russian, Polish and English. Their mom speaks to them in nearly exclusively Russian, dad mixes Polish and Russian (we try to stick to object names and commands in one language) and their toys + theiran my sister (10) and I (22) introduce some english that they hear out of their toys and out in public.

    Boys can say animal noises: moo, bee, kar (for birds in russian), meow, dada (dog), koko (chickens), woo (elephant), grrr (lion or a tiger or dinasour), am am (crocodile with actions), awawawa noise for monkey, they snort for a piggy or someone who is asleep.
    Objects: brum (car), grr (helicopter), brrr (plane), brum (train)
    They say mama and tata and baba.
    One of the twins makes a grr noise for things that he knows are often hot like hob or cup of coffee as well as blrblr for bananas. (He is technically the older twin).
    The younger twin has recently learnt to count with me in english and repeats two, three, four, eight, nine and ten.

    Both of them recognize a crazy amount of words in multiple languages, anything from meal food items to their different toys, animals in books, characters in cartoons, items in different rooms (such as bed in bedroom, bath and sink in bathroom).
    They understand complex commands which is also involve emotional control in different situations.

    Their favourite thing to do is to point to items and make you say their names. For example:
    - One hand they'll be holding an apple and other a plum. They will switch between the arms showing you each fruit at a time and wait till you say the name of it and then switch same again and switch same again and switch.(At the moment I have a broken leg and they say "ayayayaya" to the right {broken} and shake their head to say no to the left (not broken)
    - pointing to different family members and you have to say mum, dad, sister bla bla and sometimes their coulour of t-shirts and trousers.

    They pull you places and towards activities they want to do such as their puzzles or toy cars and are nearly there at the concept of yes and no.

    I really want to help with their speech development and cognitive development but I don't know how to encourage them to play with each other and try communicating between themselves as they're living in a fairly isolated environment. If anyone has any suggestions I would like to try.

    I was thus far hoping to get cards with pictures and teach them to play some games such as *show a card to the other and wait till he identifies the thing *only from 'words' they already say* but I have no idea if this will get the job done.

  19. Hello,

    we are raising our child trilingual living in the USA. I only speak Italian to him and my husband only speaks Spanish. We both speak Italian to each other. My son is almost 3 yrs old and he speaks pretty well both Italian and Spanish. He is only exposed to English at the daycare and when he watches cartoons. The problem is that he doesn't want to speak English with the other children and with his teachers. I know he can because when he uses English with us or when he plays. This means that he is learning from school and he also understands everything, he just doesn't want to speak English to others than me and his father. I know he is not shy but he acts like he was in front of other people. I am a bit worried. I am teaching him some English because I want him to be more sociable. My husband refuses to speak English to him (even though he's native!) as he thinks our kid is fine with what he is learning at school.

    1. Hi Lucia,

      Two years later, I am wondering how things are going with your son. When did he really start to speak English?

  20. Hello,
    Our 24 month old girl understands everything in Spanish (mother), German(daddy) , Swiss German( kids care) , English (family language). Even complex commands in all four language.
    She only talks maybe 6 words: da, de mi, Mama, daddy, ja, nein.

    Her doctor just send us to go to a speach therapy to support her a little bit.