Pin It
Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Late Speaker and Bilingual? Changing a Common Belief


Popular wisdom would have it that bilingual children are generally late speakers. It was certainly my experience when my son at three didn’t speak but a few words. People around me would tell me oh, don’t worry it’s because he’s bilingual. My own doctor told me there was no need for concern as my son was learning two languages at the same time.

Indeed, I met several parents of bilingual children who had the same kind of experience as me. I once met a Greek mother with a French husband who had recently come back to France from living in the United States; at four, her son didn’t really talk apart from a few words. A little girl speaking French and English at my son’s kindergarten was also a late talker, and I have found this subject to be of great debate amongst many bilingual parents.

But is it true that bilingual children speak later than monolingual children of their own age?

Not so, says Babara Abdelilah-Bauer, a linguist, social psychologist and an author of many publications on bilingualism and the founder of Café Bilingue, an organization promoting multilingual contacts.

“It has been scientifically proven that bilingual children do not suffer from a delay in speech…it is more a question of development,” she says. A bilingual child could end up being a late speaker just like any monolingual child, “but it is not due to the fact that the child speaks two languages.”

Bilingualism Often Misunderstood

So why is there a common belief that bilingual children are more likely to be late speakers?

Abdelilah-Bauer says bilingualism is not something that is well understood by the general population and is considered to be outside the norm, particularly in countries where the inhabitants speak only one language.

There are also beliefs that the brain needs to work more when a child is learning two languages at the same time, but now that has been disproved, she says. “It is not any additional work for the brain.”

Indeed, in many societies, there has in the past and still remains today a common misunderstanding of bilingualism. For example, in some schools parents were—and are still—encouraged to speak to their children in only one language for fear of confusing the child.

I have met several people of my own generation who were brought up to be bilingual until school age when their parents were told by teachers that they were only to speak to their child in one language. An English-Danish friend of mine now only speaks a few words of his Danish mother tongue after his Danish mother was told to speak to him only in English because he was mixing the two languages at school. I also have a French friend with Spanish parents who laments the fact she now speaks Spanish with a strong French accent after school teachers told her parents to restrict her use of Spanish and to focus on French.

That particular problem is ongoing, says Abdelilah-Bauer, with parents often coming up against this at school, especially when they speak languages that are not commonly seen as useful such as Dutch, Arabic or Turkish. They are often dissuaded from talking to their child in these languages because the teachers do not see the point in the child learning them, she says.

Possible Hearing Problems

If your bilingual child is a late speaker, the experts say it’s best to get it checked out either by going to a speech therapist or by having a hearing test and not just purely brush late speech development aside as a result of bilingualism.

“It is very easy to miss hearing problems,” says Abdelilah-Bauer.

My own experience is a case in point. It was a child psychologist who told me that my son’s late language development was not due to the fact that he was bilingual as I had believed it to be.

In his 30-year experience, seeing children of all different nationalities, speaking various combinations of languages, be it Spanish or Portuguese, children who spoke two or more languages from birth did not necessarily speak any later than monolingual children.

He advised a hearing check, which showed that my son suffered from liquid in his ear, and could have affected his hearing, thus his speech. Late speech development can often mask other sets of problems such as a child simply not wanting to grow up and still wanting to be a baby, which was the opinion of the child psychologist I saw.

A Passport to The Future

Bilingualism or multilingualism is a huge blessing for a child and can only bring advantages, despite all the questioning we might have in the formative years, such as speech development and schooling. It has certainly turned out that way in my case: now at the age of six I have a little boy who speaks perfectly in English and French and loves talking—a lot. He has a very advanced vocabulary for his age, and there is no indication at all that he was late in speaking.

Plus, for any child, bilingualism is a passport to many skills including exposure to different cultures at an early age. As our world gets smaller, would that not seem like a good thing?

© 2010 – 2013, Jennifer Laidlaw. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

Is all the Hard Work of Bilingualism Really Paying Off?

I just found out the surprising answer.

Circumcision Wars

She fought her Turkish in-laws on it--did she succeed?

Family History

Who knew that becoming a mother merged our histories of loss and grief

Ten Reasons Parents Should Read Multicultural Books to Kids

Why it's critical all parents read books that reflect diversity


Jennifer Laidlaw is a freelance journalist who lives in Paris. She has traveled the globe working as a reporter for news agencies Dow Jones and Reuters and has learned various different languages along the way. She is now living a truly multilingual and multicultural experience, as married to a Frenchman, she is bringing up her two small children to speak English and French in France.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsalastair mclean   |  Monday, 10 January 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Lovely to see you writing and putting stuff on the web! I’m just going to see if I can submit this,site doesn’t seem to want to let me.This is the third try!

  2. Commentsalastair mclean   |  Monday, 10 January 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Hurrah! My mother got a letter from France and forwarded it but it never came to me. Sorry if it was from you. Curse thee,Royal Mail. I’ve got to go to bed! Keep writing!Love to partner,kids and Mum.

  3. CommentsInCultureParent | Do Bilingual Children Know Fewer Words Than Monolinguals?   |  Friday, 15 February 2013 at 2:38 pm

    […] study highlights that bilingual children are not delayed in any area of vocabulary when compared to monolingual children. Additionally, it encourages parents to create as rich an […]

  4. CommentsInCultureParent | Real Intercultural Family in Guatemala: Russian, Spanish and English   |  Tuesday, 23 July 2013 at 10:00 am

    […] them another language. Start from birth. Even if you don’t think it’s working, it is. Also, kids with multi-languages tend to start talking later. It’s no big deal, don’t freak out and send them to speech therapy. They are fine. And once […]

  5. CommentsTaloga   |  Wednesday, 30 October 2013 at 8:08 am

    Thank you for the post. Indeed, it is tiresome to see how, as soon as a bilingual child has the slightlest speaking problem, the blame is inmediatly put on bilinguism. My son is trilingual Spanish/French/Dutch. As he turned 2, both our French and Spanish families, who are monolingual, found him in advance concerning language than most monolingual children in both languages! He was a quick talker and a late walker, they just don’t do things at the same rythm.
    Otherwise, there would be no monolingual late talkers (and I am a good example: raised as monolingual, it took me 7 years to properly pronounce the Spanish “r”).

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

A Children's Book for Raising Global Citizens

Every life is a story. It’s easier to understand someone when you know their story.

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!
[…] Peru, 97 percent of newborns are breastfed, according to LLLI. In Culture Parent reported that 69 percent of Peruvian children are breastfed exclusively from birth to five months, and ou...
From Breastfeeding Around the World
Hi I was googling Islamic beliefs when I came across your post. We are American and our neighbors are from Pakistan I think. Our kids love playing together but their dad doesn't allow the kids to co...
From An Islamic Perspective on Child-Rearing and Discipline
Mother’s Day is the most perfect and accurate Occasion to express your Love and Gratitude towards Mothe...
From Holi Craft: Straw Painting
[…] Muslims fast for 30 days every year for Ramadan, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Ramadan this year is happening during most of the month […...
From Ramadan: June 28-July 28
[…] Raising a Little Buddha – Part 1, InCulture Parent — Post by a Buddhist Minister about raising an enlightened child.  It starts with intimacy, communication, and community. [R...
From How to Raise an Enlightened Child — Part I
[…] Breastfeeding in Jordan, InCulture Parent — Not as restrictive as one might think. […...
From Breastfeeding in Jordan
[…] Best and Worst Countries to be a Mother, InCulture Parent – “The 2010 Mothers’ Index rates 160 countries (43 developed nations and 117 in the developing world) in terms of th...
From Best and Worst Countries to be a Mother
[…] Why Americans Value Independent and Competitive Kids, InCultureParent — Interesting look at how our values impact our interactions with our children (babies in particular). […...
From Why Americans Value Independent and Competitive Kids
[…] Multiple Fathers and Healthier Children in the Amazon, InCulture Parent — a fascinating look at cultures in the Amazon where pregnant women have sex with more than one man as a means...
From Multiple Fathers and Healthier Children in the Amazon

More Raising Bilingual Children