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My child speaks two languages – but doesn’t know many words in either
Carina Indianapolis & Viviana in Kailua
To Carina in Indianapolis and Viviana in Kailua: I’m answering your questions together as they are so similar. You both have young children growing up in a multilingual environment, you both have sons who are a little behind norms in the acquisition of English words, and both their pediatricians are concerned that the boys are a little delayed in learning to talk.

I am going to assume that both pediatricians have checked to make certain there is no hearing loss. If not, that’s a first step to take. Although I don’t know all the details of the situation and am hesitant to challenge what your pediatricians are recommending, I do want to express my opinion that, on the basis of the information you sent me, you have no reason to be concerned. Your sons are experiencing what hundreds of thousands of children in Europe and Canada and many other parts of the world handle with no difficulty—exposure to more than one language, with eventual mastery of all.

Many people seem to worry that early exposure to more than one language will handicap the young learner. However, the research evidence is clear that this does not happen. What generally happens is that young children growing up in a bilingual environment tend to be a little slower learning words in the dominant language—apparently English in both of your situations.

Carina’s son is using about a fourth of the number of words his pediatrician says he should be using. That is a little low but, when you consider the variability we see in children in rate of language acquisition, it is still within normal limits.

With respect to Viviana’s son, who is only 16 months old, 10 words pronounced distinctly in two languages indicates good progress. Viviana, you are absolutely right that this is the perfect time for him to be learning both languages from the standpoint of brain development. As far as taking him to a speech therapist, most experts would tell you he is too young. If you did, any recommended therapy would be most likely directed to you. That is, treatment would most likely consist of suggesting ways you can encourage language development through talking and reading to him rather than formal therapy.

Now, after all this background, I have four suggestions for both of you:

(1) Continue using all the relevant family languages with your boys; however, choose one language—probably English, if that is the primary language of the family and the neighborhood—as the “major” language.

(2) Observe the boys closely and watch for any signs that speaking in any language is making them anxious. This can happen, and you want to avoid it if possible.

(3) Note carefully their understanding of speech in any of the languages used in the home. In many ways, this is more important than saying words.

(4) Don’t neglect books for children written in the different languages. And read a story to them every day.

If, after a few months, you don’t see dramatic progress, ask your pediatricians to recommend a good speech and language therapist. Most cities have several, and they can do much to reduce your anxiety and, if needed, to help your boys.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education