Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child — by a Speech Pathologist

Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child — by a Speech Pathologist

This post is dedicated to all you lucky families who come from linguistically diverse backgrounds, and who are in the process of raising bilingual (or even multi-lingual children though in this post I will just use the term “bilingual”). The truth is: I really envy you. Being bilingual is a special gift, one that I wish my two young children could benefit from. But, unfortunately, both my wife and I come from monolingual, English-speaking backgrounds and even though I speak formerly-fluent German—I am too out-of-practice to call it fluent—and my wife studied Italian in college, there is really no hope for us: our kids simply don’t have a rich enough home environment to acquire the special brain wiring to be truly bilingual. But, just because one or even both of the parents in a family come from strong background in say, Spanish, Chinese or Armenian, that does not mean the child(ren) will automatically be bilingual. Bilingualism takes dedication and consistency throughout childhood. I will go over several tips that can help support bilingualism in your family, both in the context of a developmental speech and language challenge and with typically developing speech and language. Armed with practical information, you can feel confident in pursuing bilingualism for your child and endow them with a lifelong gift.

Bilingual Speech Development

Let’s start with a few core principles because this area of our field does present with some added complexity. Many times, one of the two languages a child is exposed to will be the dominant language. Of course this dominant language can shift but, at any given moment, there usually is a dominant language, the one that is simply used more, on balance, than the other. In addition, kids may experience either simultaneous acquisition, in which the child is stimulated in both languages from birth or a very early age; or, the child might experience sequential acquisition, in which a primary language is establish very early on in a child’s development (usually before school begins) and then is introduced to another language when the child is still quite young. The core difference between these two types of bilingual language development is that there may be a “silent period” in the newer language, in which the child prefers to observe and not to verbalize language in this language (from Tabors, 1997).

Raising a Bilingual Child

Practice Makes Perfect. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) recommends that parents do three main things to encourage truly bilingual language development:

  1. Use both languages, if possible, from the moment a child is born
  2. Use one language at home
  3. Allow your child ample opportunities to practice both languages on their own in natural, social contexts

To quickly comment on point #1 above, classic studies of language development in infants have shown that children as young as 6 months of age are actively listening to the particular sounds in their language environment so starting very early allows them maximal exposure to both the sounds and the words and sentences of both languages. Regarding point #2 above, if both English and, say Polish are used interchangeably at home, then it is likely that English will come to quickly dominate Polish, given that the child’s schooling and activities of daily life outside the home will likely be conducted in English. So, it is best to create a “Polish-only” in the home that is easily controlled and would have a chance to compete with English. Point #3 really speaks to providing as natural a language environment for both languages to thrive. In other words, Polish shouldn’t only be spoken in the home with only grandma or dad. If dad is the native Polish speaker and mom is American, then mom should potentially try to learn some Polish to not only support point #2 above, but also to help foster natural language development. Also, try to set up playdates with other Polish-speaking children or have the child experience ordering food in a Polish restaurant, if possible. It is all about each language being given the chance to develop on their own with minimal constraints.

Lifelong Bilingual Education

Commit to bilingualism throughout your child’s education and encourage carry-over into adulthood. I have a dear friend whose father is American and mother is Korean, born and raised in South Korea. In college, we were at a Korean restaurant and the waiter couldn’t think of the correct English words for a couple items on the menu I had asked about – we had a brief “Lost in Translation” moment. Well, my friend chimed in and supplied the English words in question. I was mildly stunned and impressed. How did he know this? I knew of his Korean heritage and the fact that both his parents are fluent speakers of Korean – his father is a retired professor of Korean linguistics. Nevertheless, I had no idea he could speak Korean. But then, the waiter started conversing in rapid, connected Korean with my friend and that’s when it broke down and things got mildly awkward: the waiter figured out that, in fact, my friend didn’t really speak Korean any more, despite being essentially bilingual as a child.

This anecdote is mean to convey a key point: language is a living organism in many ways that needs to be exercised. If you stop using a language, your skills will deteriorate. If you took two years of college German, and have never practiced since, you will no doubt find yourself shocked at how little you can communicate on your vacation to Berlin. If, as in the case of my friend, you regularly use your secondary (i.e. non-dominant) language, despite your bilingual upbringing, you will likely find your understanding of the language preserved, but your ability to express yourself compromised. However, immersion in that language should re-activate your skills, making you fluent within a matter of weeks. Typically, only dominant languages in a bilingual upbringing will show little to no deterioration. Even then, I have heard, for example, people born and raised in monolingual in another country and who moved to the US as an adult find it difficult to write or use more complex language in their native tongue.

Managing a Bilingual Speech Delay

Should I use two languages or one with a speech and/or language-delayed child?

That is the question as we consider bilingualism in a child with a possible speech and/or language challenge. I am frequently asked by parents of potentially bilingual children who present with a speech and/or language developmental challenge whether they should stimulate their child only in English, so as not to “confuse” the child. Basically without exception, so the research would suggest, parents should feel free to stimulate the child in both languages. I can perceive the logic of the thinking that a child with a language delay or disorder might have trouble processing two different vocabularies, two different grammars, and a different set of sounds. However, the research in this area within our field would suggest that this actually stimulates general language development. So,

no matter what a nosy friend or relative might say, it is highly recommended that you either start or continue to actively use all the languages your family is lucky enough to speak.

Always Try to Get a Bilingual Speech Evaluation

If you believe your bilingual child may have a speech and/or language developmental delay or disorder, it is essential that he or she receive a bilingual evaluation. If this English-Polish bilingual child were to be evaluated in just English, this would unfairly skew the results against the child; for example, the child may know the Polish word for “fork” but not the English one and if tested on this item in English, the child would probably have trouble naming “fork” in English. Likewise, it is possible that the child may be expressing himself in a more complex, advanced way in Polish than in English. Again, a monolingual English evaluation would likely not pick this up and would portray the child as more delayed in language development that he or she really is. Of course, if you live in a less populated area or speak a less widely spoken language, it may be very difficult to find a qualified speech pathologist to evaluate your child, who is available and also speaks your language. I recommend spending a couple extra weeks and really looking hard for this person since it is so important to learning as much as possible about your child’s developmental profile. But, time is also of the essence and if you cannot find someone, the next best thing is for the native speaker of that language within the family (e.g. grandma) be present throughout the entire evaluation to be able to provide translation or other insights to your evaluator. Also, the major tests out there have extensively tested and published bilingual versions of their tests, but only for the most widely spoken languages, like Spanish. The bottom line is, a bilingual evaluation is incredibly important but you may also have to adapt to less widely spoken languages or the realities of finding a qualified evaluator in your local area.

Toujours un Cadeau

Bilingualism is an incredibly important tool for enriching almost all aspects of childhood. Therefore, wherever feasible, it is highly recommended that you commit to bilingualism. And like committing to physical fitness and wellbeing, you can’t just go to the gym regularly for a month or two, you have to just make it part of your life, now and going forward. The same is absolutely true with a second language. In addition, with a speech or language-delayed child, maintain this commitment to bilingualism. Look into potential dual-language programs in your area, though these programs tend to be available for only the most widely spoken languages in the US, like Spanish, Chinese and French. If, your child is eligible for speech and language therapy services, go that extra mile to see if you can secure those services with a bilingual speech pathologist So, good luck to all you parents out there! The gift of being raised bilingual will open social and professional doors for your children throughout their lives.

More Bilingual resources from the Speech Buddies blog:

Parent's Guide to Speech & Communication Challenges


Find your speech solution
Language Development Speech Therapy for Kids