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Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Why is My Bilingual Child’s Vocabulary Below Her Peers?

Dad reading to bilingual kids via Shutterstock

Dear Dr. Gupta,


Some background information first: We are raising our children German-English bilingually in the U.S. I am a native German and I speak German with the kids, but my husband speaks English and pre-school, school, etc. is all in English. There are not many other German-speaking families in the area we live. Our four- and six-year-old girls both speak German (with some grammar mistakes). I mainly contribute this to the twice yearly visits (usually for 2-3 months) from my German speaking parents and our yearly visits to Germany over the summer.


The oldest just turned six, she is in Kindergarten and just got her IOWA test of basic skills results back. She did very well overall but it was interesting to note that her vocabulary skills were well below all of her other skills. Reading, comprehension, listening (and math) were all well above 90%, but the vocabulary portion came in as 62%.


I was wondering if that is something common to bilingual kids? Do you know if others have had the same experience?


The books we are reading to the girls are mostly in German (Daddy reads only 1-2 per week in English on average) and we tend to focus as much as possible on German since it gets so little attention otherwise during their daily lives. But I am wondering now if I do need to start working and focusing on the girls’ English vocabulary some more? I am thinking to include some picture dictionaries in English (and both German and English) into our readings.


Thank you so much for any help and advice you might have.


~ Concerned about English Vocab


Dear Concerned about English Vocab,


Simply put, don’t worry, and keep using German.


It’s likely that the children spend more time with you than with their father, and that German is their primary language.  The six-year-old should acquire more and more English as she progresses through school. You should see her score increasing a year from now.  As you are in the U.S., it is more important to keep up the children’s strengths in German, as they will naturally switch, over time, to having English as their main language.


It used to be thought that bilingual children were behind other children, but that was because they were being tested in only one language. You would get a better idea of the six-year-old’s vocabulary level if you tested her in both languages. But don’t do this.


I would advise you to keep going with the German. You should see the vocabulary scores in English going up year by year. The more English you bring into the home, the less likely it is that she will want to keep speaking German.


Dr. Gupta

For more on this topic see Do Bilingual Children Know Fewer Words than Monolinguals?

© 2013, The Editors. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsUte   |  Thursday, 15 August 2013 at 2:00 pm

    I wouldn’t compare a bilingual or multilingual child to monolinguals. Children who grow up with more than one language learn two or more vocabularies and will result ‘below normal’ in monolingual tests. Usually Multilinguals catch up easily. Be aware that multilinguals have always one (or two!) dominant languages and they never have exactly the same proficiency in all the languages they acquire.

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