Teaching Kids a Second Language: Can It Cause a Speech Delay?

Some people may mistakenly believe that raising a child in a bilingual household (meaning they speak more than one language) puts them at risk for language delays or a “silent period” when they might not speak at all. Language delays can still occur in bilingual children, but bilingualism itself is not the cause.

It is important to know that parents who speak two or more languages should not only speak English to their child as a “quick fix” for a potential language delay.

Learning two languages in childhood does not cause confusion or language delay.

The idea that two languages causes language delays in children has been a long-standing myth in the United States. However, research has dispelled this myth. Children are able to learn two languages at the same pace as other children who are learning only one language.

What if the child has Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder or another diagnosis?

Bilingualism does not cause confusion or language delay, even if the child is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder or another diagnosis. Current research overwhelmingly shows that speaking to children with these diagnoses in two or more languages does not result in additional language and or social delays.

Not using two languages can potentially result in language delays.

Parents who try not to use their native language may make it harder for a child to learn any language well, since it may limit the quality and quantity of language exposure that the child is receiving at home.

Multilingual families should speak to their child in the language in which they feel the most comfortable.

Mixing two languages is not bad.

Using two languages in the same sentence is a natural form of communication used by many, but not all, bilingual speakers. If a parent switches between languages, the child will likely do so as well.

What can bilingual parents do to help their child?

  • Children learn language from hearing language. Everyday routines such as mealtimes, bath time, getting dressed, and playtime are all great opportunities for talking, teaching, and learning vocabulary in either language.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Children need to hear new words hundreds of times before they begin to use them. A parent can repeat the word they want their child to learn in a simple sentence while showing them what it is.
  • Be a language model, not a language enforcer. When a child uses grunts or gestures instead of words, or uses an incorrect word or grammar, simply model the correct word or sentence instead of correcting them. Avoid demanding that the child say something – instead, show them what to say through modeling.
  • Build on their language. Repeat what the child says and add an extra word to the sentence to help them learn what they can say the next time. For example, if the child says “more” to ask for more juice, the parent can respond, “more juice!” Then repeat the phrase several times.
  • Be patient. Every child is unique and learns language gradually. Most bilingual children will fluctuate in which language they use and how well they use it. Encourage the child to continue communicating in whichever language they are most motivated to use.

If the child continues to have difficulty learning more language, schedule a speech and language evaluation with a bilingual speech language pathologist. To learn more about Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Speech Pathology Services, click here.

Meagan Horn, MA
Meagan Horn is a bilingual speech-language pathologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital at the Main Campus Outpatient location. She received an M.A. in both Hispanic Linguistics and Speech Language Pathology from The Ohio State University. She works directly with the Hispanic population with interest in the areas of early language intervention for bilingual children and parent education and empowerment. She is currently developing a program to provide one-day workshops for Spanish-speaking families to learn strategies for enhancing their child’s language development.

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