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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices


Language Development in Bilingual Children


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 language."

The following "red flags" may indicate that the child who is simultaneously acquiring two languages is experiencing problems with language development:

  • 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; and
  • No use of word combinations and a very limited vocabulary by age 2-3 years.

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:

  1. Be consistent in how and with whom each language is used,
  2. Speak the language that you are more comfortable with
  3. Keep the grammar of each language suitable for the child's age
  4. 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."

 

As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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