Bilingual home causing language delays? - Mothering Forums
Multicultural Families > Bilingual home causing language delays?
mt_gooseberry's Avatar mt_gooseberry 03:46 PM 05-09-2011

It seems like my 15mo DD is really slow in her language development, and I'm getting conflicting information on whether it's because she is exposed to two languages.  Her receptive language seems OK (that is, she seems to understand what is said to her), but she's far enough behind on her verbal skills that people comment on it.  Her ped is concerned that she still doesn't call me "mama" or my husband "dada" or "papa."  She's normal or advanced in every other developmental area.  She babbles all day long, but very few words.  For those of you who have gone the bilingual route, has this been the case for you?  Did your child start speaking late, and if so, when did they really start talking?  When did they catch-up to kids with only one language?

pear-shaped's Avatar pear-shaped 12:56 AM 05-10-2011

My dd did not speak late at all, which surprised me because I had read and heard a lot about speech delays being typical to bilingual children. I've since read quite a few things that call that idea into question, and I also have quite a few expat friends whose children didn't start speaking late either. But I do know of a few bilingual children who spoke later than average. I've heard of a couple who were pretty much silent until three years of age and then started speaking directly in sentences. Personally, I think that bilingual children are just like monolingual children, some of them speak early, some are average, and some speak later.


You mention that she doesn't say mama or papa, does she have a word that she consistently uses to refer to you? How many words does she have? One thing I remember from when my dd was only beginning to speak is that she had some invented words that she used consistently...I have no idea where they came from, but she used them consistently to mean certain things, so I did think of them as words. Is your daughter doing something like that? That she seems to understand what is said is a good sign. What does your mama's instinct tell you?






DariusMom's Avatar DariusMom 03:01 AM 05-10-2011

15 months seems pretty young to be considered "delayed" with speech to be honest. My bilingual DS was on the later side of speaking, though not really "delayed." I actually don't remember him saying "mama" or "papa" consistently at all until he was close to 20 months! He did say things like "lamp" and "cat" and definitely understood what was being said to him in both languages but his speech only took off at between 20-22 months. Now, at age 8, he has a fantastic vocabulary in both languages.

transylvania_mom's Avatar transylvania_mom 06:41 AM 05-10-2011

agree with PP, 15 months seems very early for language delays. That being said, ds (now 6) had only a couple of words until he was 2. Now he speaks fluently 3 languages. Personally, I wouldn't worry, but you know your child best. You can always ask for a second opinion.

EVC's Avatar EVC 04:54 PM 05-10-2011

While there does seem to be some anecdotal evidence suggesting that bilingual children start talking later than monolingual children, numerous studies have shown that, on average, this is NOT actually the case. 


Having said that, my dd was "late-ish" and didn't really start talking until about 18 months (although she did have a handful of words and animal sounds, etc. before then). Within a few months of that, she had not only "caught up" with and in many cases surpassed the other kids in her daycare group. She is a total chatterbox, now in three languages.


It does seem a bit concerning that your dd doesn't say mama or dada. Have you considered getting a speech evaluation? A speech delay has nothing to do with cognitive ability and it is quite possible that she could be ahead on other developmental milestones, but behind on speech production. It is a good sign that her receptive language is good (so you can probably rule out a hearing impairment). It IS early to be overly worried about this, but a speech evaluation and, if necessary therapy, can go A LONG way if started early on. Again, I wouldn't worry terribly about it yet, but maybe just something to discuss with your ped. 

Bellabaz's Avatar Bellabaz 06:38 AM 05-11-2011

I tend to agree that 15 months is a bit young to be labeled speech delayed. My kids are trilingual. When dd1 was young we lived in the US, I spoke English to her and dh Italian. I do't personally remember exactly when she began talking, but I assure you it was way too early! lol


Dd2 is 20 months and we have been living in France since just before her birth. So she says words in all three languages. But I have to say this all started within the last 2 months. She really took off, with a new word or two everytime I pick her up from the sitter. I am not saying that you would necessarily understand everything she says, but her vocab is not bad.


I too have read alot that mutillingual kids can have delayed speech. When I was an aupair, the family was bilingual and when I came we added English to the mix. The older child spoke at 11 months or something like that. the little girl was 2 when I arrived and she was slightly behind other kids but caught up quickly.  


For both my kids, Italian is the weakest language because its the one they here less. They understand it, but expressively they are behind other italian kids their age. But everytime we visit it improves and I feel taht they will eventually catch up.

deeka's Avatar deeka 07:25 AM 05-11-2011

We've had issues with late expressive speech for DD too. We speak two languages which are very very different, one of which is English. Different grammar, different vocabulary, different sounds, different styles of talking, everything. Until 18 months, DD heard English at daycare, and mostly other language from me. She could understand both languages perfectly well, but the only words she would say were the ones that were exactly the same in both languages. There are about 3 of those. It's like she was afraid of making mistakes.


Under pressure from - well, pretty much everyone - I switched to speaking to her in English at about 23 months. She's 27 months now and has a huge vocabulary in English. It turns out she knew a lot - not just words for things, but all of the numerals, colours and quite a few shapes - in English. I found this out within a week of switching to English and reading books to her in English, I'd ask her to point to the green balloon/triangle etc. and she always got it right. I also figured out her pronunciation  was really bad in BOTH languages (duh, she's 2) and she was actually saying quite a few words that I didn't understand, and giving up in exasperation when I didn't do what she asked. I'm apparently really bad at understanding baby talk. The additional cue, that she is speaking to me in English, helps me to interpret what she's saying much better.


We're probably moving back to home country, so I don't feel bad about switching to English only, but if we don't move back I'm switching languages again.


I know there are studies on this, but I'm not sure they're very well controlled in terms of variables. For instance, nobody else in this town speaks the same language we do - so noone can correctly interpret baby talk in my language. I can't correctly interpret baby talk in English. Yet feedback is supposed to be very important in how kids learn speech. The languages we speak are very very different in grammar,  vocabulary, and pronunciation (sounds). It seems to me to be a very different scenario than when someone's raising English/French speaking kids in Canada, for instance, where almost all the adults will have some familiarity with the basic words in both languages. DD actually uses more Spanish words (courtesy of Dora the Explorer) than she does word in my other language. Among my friends from my home country, I don't know any whose young kids are functionally bilingual (as opposed to knowing a few words in other language).



Amatullah0's Avatar Amatullah0 07:48 AM 05-11-2011

DS still doesn't call me "mama" When we lived with dad he would say "baba" a lot (but not consistently in reference to his dad--sometimes, he would just randomly say it) I never emphasized calling me "mama" or anything else though. After we moved in with the in-laws(at 21 months), he started calling his aunts and uncle "ana" -no idea where this came from, he made it up. DS is 23 months now. 


He doesn't use any kind of distinct word to refer to keys(favorite toy), water, or food, or to say come here, but he will grunt and point. He will say words(not usually in english though) if you tell them to him first(our other language is Urdu), but only 1-2 syllable words that he already knows.


He might have said "baba" more or less consistently by 15 mo, but not anything else. The only time he said "mama" or "um-mah" was when he was crying


Speech problems(delays) DO run in the monolingual side of our family, but I'm not going to even think about worrying about it until he's closer to 3. 

mt_gooseberry's Avatar mt_gooseberry 04:21 PM 05-11-2011

Well, these responses make me feel a bit better.  I personally don't feel she's too slow, but it seems like EVERYONE makes comments about her puny vocabulary.  Maybe it's just that urge for people to make it seem like their children are always a bit further ahead than others ("when MY daughter was that age, she could say 21 words clearly...yours can only say 5? oohhhh....").  Her pediatrician did say she was below average in her vocabulary, and that it was very strange that she didn't have a word for me, but that it was not something we were going to worry about yet.  In response to some of your questions....


No, she doesn't have a specific term which refers to just me.  She says "agua," "cheese," "Jesus," "chi chi" ("breast" in Spanish...this was her first and only consistent word), "up," and "nana" (banana).  She also makes the noises for several animals.  She hasn't had any new words for about three months.


I really appreciate the input, as it makes me more secure in our decision to start her out with two languages.  Most people are telling me to only do one first, and then she can learn the other one later.  Especially when they use her "delayed" speech as a reason to only speak to her in English (or only in Spanish).  I would love to continue reading about your experiences with this issue, because I don't know anyone else who is raising their children bilingual from the beginning!



Amatullah0's Avatar Amatullah0 08:46 PM 05-11-2011

We do two languages(sometimes he's exposed to other languages too though) with DS. I do think that learning more than one language from the beginning might add on a couple of months before speech takes off, but that is something that I was ok with for my kids. It's not like they will never learn the language, it's just that they are taking a little longer to process it. It's not going to end the world if it takes him a few more months to talk, you know? The few months deficit(if it happens) doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your kid, but teaching them more than one language from the beginning has long term benefits that outweigh going a few extra months(or even a year) of not talking. 



pear-shaped's Avatar pear-shaped 02:43 AM 05-12-2011



Originally Posted by Amatullah0 View Post

It's not like they will never learn the language, it's just that they are taking a little longer to process it. It's not going to end the world if it takes him a few more months to talk, you know? The few months deficit(if it happens) doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your kid, but teaching them more than one language from the beginning has long term benefits that outweigh going a few extra months(or even a year) of not talking. 



yeahthat.gif Sometimes it seems like people are in a race to beat milestones. What does it matter if a one child starts speaking later than another, they do catch up to one another eventually, by the time it really matters. I gave lessons at my dd's preschool for a time and it was interesting to see how there were very big differences in speech among the children in the youngest classes (ages 2-3) and very few among those in the oldest classes (ages 5-6). And they were mostly monolingual children; I imagine that other than my daughter there are very few bilingual children as I hear most immigrants here speaking Italian to their children.


When I was pregnant with dd, if I happened to mention that I intended to speak English to her, people became obsessed by the idea that she would be confused and speak late, it was all they wanted to talk about! Then my dh and his family were worried that no one would understand her first words if they were English (so what? it's not like small children are easy to understand anyway!)...there were even some people who thought she'd never learn Italian if I didn't speak it to her, or that I'd hard-wire her brain for English and she'd never speak Italian well! My response to people who worried that she'd be delayed, or that no one would understand her before she figured out which language to speak to whom, was always the same: if the end result is that she is bilingual, then I happily accept a short period of inconvenience. It didn't happen that way for us because she spoke early, but had she started later, I would have felt the same. The benefits of being bilingual, (or trilingual or more) far outweigh any of the little annoyances that other people might have because a child doesn't speak the way they think he/she should. (Because really, most of the inconvenience is experienced by other people, not the child, not the child's immediate family, etc.)


OP, I think animal sounds count as words at that age. Also, for a while when my dd used to say mamma, she was really asking to nurse, she didn't really use it to refer to me! So I think it's interesting that your dd does have a word for breast...I think you could make an argument that for some babies and toddlers mama and breast are interchangeable terms, lol. Not having any new words for three months gives me a little pause, but maybe that's just because it doesn't fit my experience with dd.  And as other pp have mentioned, 15 months is still young. One of my good friends has a fifteen-month-old who babbles only, he has no words, and they're not a bilingual family. If you are interested, I write about my daughter's language development on my blog from time to time. It's in my profile, it should be the first link. I have those posts tagged "bilingual."


physmom's Avatar physmom 10:59 AM 05-12-2011

I actually just posted something similar to this in the toddler thread but I'll add this here too.  DH was speech delayed and I was on the slower end so we preempted it by doing signing with DD.  Between being bilingual with semi-regular exposure to a third language and family history we thought for sure she'd be running late for speech. We started at about 4 months but got really serious about it at around 14 months?  Anyways, I think it did wonders for her and helped her connect the words in the various languages.  Maybe she couldn't verbalize "airplane" or "aviao" or "Flugzeug" but she could sure make her hand fly across the sky and we knew what she was talking about (and eventually the words DID come).  


I posted awhile back about language development of bilingual(+) kids  and I just don't think there is any linear way to describe it because it depends so much on what type of languages they are learning, how they are exposed to them and how often. I would guess even that maybe certain languages that have more difficult sounds could make it harder to say a child's first words(I don't know, just wondering...)?  Also there are cultural differences in how language is taught (that's discussed in Our Babies, Ourselves or Kids both by Meredith Small, I can't remember which one...). 

Serafima's Avatar Serafima 07:49 AM 05-15-2011

I think that at an early age, the babies are more well-disposed to learn faster words from different languages. If this delays, that should not be a concern, it depends of baby's capacities...

accountclosed2's Avatar accountclosed2 10:43 PM 05-15-2011
DD is bilingual. And she spoke quite well early on. But she still didn't have that many words by 15 months (and most of her words sounded like variations on Ba, Bab, Baba, with slightly different pronunciations, and she also said Yes). She did not say mamma or daddy, but she used baby sign language and by 15 months used over 80 words, none of them mamma or daddy. By 18 months she spoke in three word sentences, used about 50 words and translated between languages. A lot of the time she'd use the words in both languages, and add the sign for good measure.

My cousin was bilingual, and hardly spoke at all by age 3. Within a few months she was speaking complete sentences, and she's done very well at school from Kindergarten onwards.
Eclipsepearl's Avatar Eclipsepearl 02:01 PM 05-17-2011

Children can learn additional language later but it's very difficult to change languages on a child who is used to using one already with the parent(s). Getting a child-care provider who speaks the language or sending them to a bilingual or school in that language can and does work. But if you want a relationship with your child in a certain language, best to use it from the start. 


My first child was very delayed and my second very advanced. The third was also slow, but not as slow as her brother who didn't talk till 2 1/2. He had about 6 words after his second birthday. 


Typically, these children understand but don't talk much. You can wake up one morning and presto! you have a talking child. It's like the floodgates open and all these words come rushing out. He "gets it"! 


I also have some other theories. The "experts" say delays are really a myth. I think part of the reason might be that bilingual children might be mixing with children of upper/middle classes, educated parents, etc. Their monolingual peers are probably ahead in their language development, giving the impression that our children are delayed. The reality is that our children are still on the "normal" scale but are being compared to above-normal kids! 


Also, especially for FT parents, it's a big change from baby to toddler-hood. Babies follow very predictable patterns while toddlers seem to do whatever, whenever. The "rules" are out the window and while one kicks a ball in a very coordinated manner, another will speak well, while yet another one seems to be very good at drawing...


Personality for me, was more a factor. While I fed mine the same things and loved them just as much, honestly, my middle child is very high-needs. The "advantage" of having an early speaker was well off-set with having such a demanding child. Gifted and athletic, as well as being head-turningly beautiful, she looks like a Mother's Dream but I will confess to all of you, we have had our trying moments. My son, meanwhile, is sensitive, kind and very caring. When he was little, he was very undemanding. He still is. He just didn't need to communicate because simply, he was less needy. 


So I've reflected a lot on the advantages and disadvantages of raising the first two with such different needs and personalities. When I had my third, more like her brother, and someone would say "...still not talking?" I'd smile and say "Oh no. Just like her brother. But your little Emily is just doing soooo well with her speech. You must be so proud!" and honestly meant it! 


My older two are trilingual and all three are excellent students. 


Not speaking can be a sign of a learning problem and bi/multi-lingual children certainly aren't immune. But the cases I know personally have told me that the delayed speech was actually one of many other disturbing symptoms. One mother actually admitted that the delayed speech was one of the more minor problems her child had. 


So don't waste time worrying about her at this stage. I really regret that I did with my son. I kick myself when I look at him today! He was fine and all I did was worry and lose sleep. Don't make my mistake! Just enjoy your child and work with the little person you've been privileged to raise! 

Lazy Gardens's Avatar Lazy Gardens 05:28 PM 05-28-2011

I could dig out the references if I had to - it's probably somewhere on  - but I vaguely remember reading some research done on babies and toddlers who were exposed to a multi-lingual environment.


Search for this on Google:  Language acquisition in bilingual children 


Found some good parent-level articles :





belltree's Avatar belltree 07:33 PM 06-01-2011

Some older research had suggested that there could be a delay, because there is more things to learn. Newer research suggests that this is not the case. However, watching my child growing up trilingual, I see that if he is around people that don't speak dh or my language, than they don't get that he is actually talking and making sense and they don't communicate back, but take it as babbeling. I believe, that this could lead to some delay.

TuiNZ's Avatar TuiNZ 10:14 PM 06-23-2011

My DS is 22 months old and growing up being exposed to three different languages. He has a few words like "tata", "baba", "amam", "Thomas", "bath"... and some signs, but not as much as some other kids his age. His receptive language is great. I've just posted on the "special needs children" board as he is also very shy and timid. So part of me thinks that he says a word only when he knows he'll get it right. For example, if I ask him to blow into a whistle, if he's not sure how, he won't even try no matter how much I insist. But when he got it he did it perfectly.


He also doesn't call me "mama", but I am pretty sure it's because I've been saying to him "am-am" when he needs to eat. So he associates that word with food.


He babbles all the time and I know one day he'll just get it. I grew up in a bilingual environment and I didn't start speaking until 2,5. Today I'm a lawyer in a foreign country, English is my second language but many people here comment on how well I speak (I did not start learning English until my teens). I think that being exposed to and learning two languages from when I was a baby has wired my brain in a way that I can now pick up other languages quicker than your average monolingual Joe. So it has definitely been an asset in many ways, one of which is that I can communicate with relatives on both my father's and mother's side.


I agree with some others here that some bilingual children do start speaking early. But you need to also account for their personalities and that we're not all the same. I do know quite a few, though, that did not start talking until after 2, even closer to 3 years old.

mamaprovides's Avatar mamaprovides 06:40 PM 06-24-2011

First off, I think it is easier to call it a language delay because multi-lingual children tend to start later then mono speakers. My theory is simply because it is difficult to reinforce words as they come up. I had a hard time figuring out what he was referring to and in what language or (I assume) I reinforced the wrong word. Therefore it takes longer for the words to come out as they end up having to work out the monosyllables on their own.


At a certain point, I started to hear the words and could reinforce them. In my house I speak only Spanish and my husband (and our world) speak English (or Spanglish). When I knew the word he was saying was an English word I would say the word and then say it in Spanish. "Ball. Si pelota...tenga la pelota" My husband reinforced the English words he could pull out and so my son's first two and three word sentences were spanglish. By 2...2.5 it was clear and he started to realize that there were two words for everything and then this amazing language explosion happened. It was amazing. Now my son is a little over three. When he learns a new word he wants to know what it is in the other language. He also swaps back and forth. When we are at home he speaks all Spanish except for the words he doesn't know  but out in the world he speaks English.


I expect another "delay" when children developmentally start making grammatical shifts (feet/feets/foot & I is running & I am ate) and the Again when he starts to read and write.



meemee's Avatar meemee 11:27 PM 06-26-2011

only in this country where multilingual is not the norm does one worry about multilingual causing delays. 


i absolutely agree 15 months is way too young to worry about delays. the first language explosion happens around 18 months anyways. 


dunno. i think its a personality thing. dd started speaking real early. but it was only at 9 months were her words clear for others to understand. she spoke 4 languages at that time. 


even in multilanguage countries where the child grows up listening to a multitude of languages, some kids speak early and some take time. 


the big red flag is when their vocabulary goes DOWN rather than up. even keel is ok. but losing some words is a big pointer to something being up.