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?