I’m often asked by concerned parents if they should stick to one language or if they can speak a multi-languages with their children. They’re concerned if the second language will cause their child to have a language delay. I’d like to note that the content of this post is a combination of my own personal opinions through my years of experience as a speech and language pathologist as well as the research I’ve done. With that in mind, every child is very different and will respond differently although there are some universal “rules” just as are allergies and allergens!
According to Sara Johnson (the author of Oral-Motor Exercises for Speech Clarity, Assessment and Treatment of the Jaw- Putting it all Together: Sensory, Feeding and Speech, the Drooling Program, Activities for Kids, Assessment and Treatment of the Jaw and other educational materials) every child is born with the ability to produce EVERY sound in every language by the age of 3 years old. Their system is equipped to learn and produce all sounds regardless of the language, therefore, in my opinion and experience it only makes sense that children will not be “confused” by multi-languages they hear and are spoken to. At times it may be difficult as a parent to know who to “trust” as many in the medical establishment are still teaching that bilingualism may cause a language delay. However, children aren’t exactly having to “learn” twice as many words, and they don’t have to think about which language bucket to put each word into. Rather bilingual children are picking up each language as “packages of sounds” they are hearing around themselves. For those more fortunate who have a housekeeper (who often speaks a different language than the child’s “mother’s tongue”), you’ll notice how easily your child/children “code switch” between the different languages. Drawing from a personal experience, my cousin needed to let their housekeeper know where an item was in the house, he called his grandmother and spoke in English and easily translated everything to the housekeeper in Spanish. He was 2.5 years old at the time! This observation is further supported by Kendall King and Lyn Fogle from Georgetown University in their note: “…research indicates that the ability to switch back and forth between languages, sometimes called code-switching, is a sign of mastery of two linguistic systems, not a sign of language confusion, and that children as young as 2 are able to code-switch in socially appropriate ways (Lanza, 1992).” From my experience it’s best to assign a language to each adult and not to interchange the languages. For instance, dad may only speak English to the children, mom only French, housekeeper only Spanish. Children can easily navigate through each language especially with consistency.
According to the Science of Learning Blog: “babies growing up in a bilingual environment are better able to attend to perceptual cues such as a change in voice tone or facial expression, in both languages and can apply this ability to distinguish things in the world as well.” In the case of children who are language delayed, you can still apply the same rule. Keep in mind that they are delayed, and therefore will be delayed in all languages and will learn all of them at the same paste should you keep everything CONSISTENT. According to Center for Applied Linguistics, 2006, “Although many parents believe that bilingualism results in language delay, research suggests that monolingual and bilingual children meet major language developmental milestones at similar times.”