With U.S. Census Bureau data indicating that at least 350 languages are being spoken across American homes—and nearly 10% of school-age children nationwide who are classified as English language learners (ELLs)—bilingual children are far from rare in the United States. Yet misconceptions about speaking two languages are common—to the potential detriment of these dual language learners.
In all, roughly 5 million ELLs attend U.S. public schools. Spanish was the home language of 3.7 million ELL students in 2014–15, representing 77.1% of all ELL students and 7.6% of all public K–12 students.
While bilingual children starting school may face initial challenges if they don’t speak English, it is important for parents to understand that being bilingual does not cause delays in a child’s speech/language development. Some special treatment considerations are involved when bilingual children have speech/language disorders. However, parents should know that the disorders are not caused by being exposed to two languages. In fact, being bilingual provides children with many long-term advantages—educational and otherwise.
Young children who are exposed to two languages have the same speech/language development trajectory as those who are exposed to one language. As with other children, most bilingual children will speak their first word by age 1 (such as “mama” or “dada”) and will use two-word phrases by age 2 (such as “my ball” or “more juice”). Some bilingual children may mix grammar rules from time to time, or they might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of bilingual language development and does not mean that a child is confused.
If a child has a speech/language problem, it will show up in both languages. Here are some tips for parents who are concerned:
Become familiar with communication milestones. Children who are exposed to two or more languages should meet the same developmental milestones that other children meet. Parents should pay close attention to these milestones and learn the initial signs of a communication disorder.
Seek out a bilingual professional. If a child has not met communication milestones, seek out an evaluation by a bilingual speech-language pathologist who is knowledgeable in the area of second language acquisition. A searchable database of professionals nationwide is available at www.asha.org/profind. Pediatricians, friends, and neighbors may also have recommendations. If a bilingual speech-language pathologist is not available in an area, look for a speech-language pathologist who can work with an interpreter.
Contact the local school system. School-age children who require assistance can receive services within their schools. Younger children may qualify for the local Early Intervention program, also administered through the school system. For a communication disorder, the earlier that treatment begins, the better—so don’t delay if there is any concern.
Joanne Summer, MA, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist based in Morristown, NJ, has helped hundreds of children improve their speech sound production and language skills. She founded Well Spoken Speech Therapy, LLC, in 2014 after spending 12 years providing therapy to children (K-5) in the New Jersey public school system. In private practice, her clients also include younger children and adolescents. In addition, she treats people of all ages who stutter or otherwise find it difficult to speak fluently—an area in which she has received extensive specialized training.