The number of children speaking non-English languages in the United
States is expected to increase in the next decade, so state the authors of
an article in the July 2001 issue of Contemporary Pediatrics. Therefore,
parents and pediatricians should become more familiar with the normal patterns
of bilingual language development and be able to identify abnormal language
in a bilingual child.
There are two major patterns in bilingual language acquisition:
simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism. In simultaneous
bilingualism, the child acquires two languages at the same time before the
age of 3 years. These children may mix words or parts of words from both
languages in the first stage. Stage 2 occurs at 4 years and older when
distincntion between the two languages takes place, and the child uses each
language separately. Sequential bilingualism also occurs before the child
is 3 years old, but the child can draw on the knowledge and experience of
the first language while acquiring the second language.
Detecting delays in the speech and language of multilingual children
presents a challenge. The authors state that "the key is to obtain information
about the child's entire language system, not just the primary or secondary
The following "red flags" may indicate that the child who is
simultaneously acquiring two languages is experiencing problems with language
No sounds by 2-6 months of age;
Less than one new word per week for 6- to 15-month-old children;
Less than 20 words (in the two languages combined) by 20 months;
No use of word combinations and a very limited vocabulary by age 2-3
Red flags for abnormal language development in the sequential acquisition
of two languages include
Lack of normal milestones in the first language;
Prolonged phases of not talking
Difficulty retrieving words
What can parents do? The authors offer a number of suggestions to
parents where two languages are spoken in the house:
Be consistent in how and with whom each language is used,
Speak the language that you are more comfortable with
Keep the grammar of each language suitable for the child's age
Keep your child interested and motivated.
Parents should not be overly concerned about the negative effects
of bilingualism. According to the authors, "Research suggests . . . that
learning difficulties occur in bilingual children just as they do in monolingual
children, and that bilingualism is neither a direct nor indirect cause. .
. . A child who has the opportunity to speak more than one language should
find that second language an asset, not an obstacle."