"Speaking two or more languages causes a language delay." - myth or truth?

Mary-Pat O'Malley from TalkNua gives her research-based account for why you might not need to worry if your bilingual child will have a delayed language development.

Mary-Pat O'Malley
Updated on
February 15, 2021
10 min read

It is simply not true to say that speaking two or more languages causes language delay in children. There is a lot of research evidence which proves that this myth is just not true. For example, Dutch researchers report that "monolingual and bilingual children did not differ in terms of the timing of their basic early milestones, which is in line with previous work (Hoff et al., 2012; Paradis et al., 2010)." And a study from the UK which looked at research about speech sound development in multilingual children over a fifty year period concluded that there is “limited evidence to suggest that bilingual children develop speech at a slower rate than their monolingual peers” (Hambly, Wren, McLeod, & Roulstone, 2013, p. 1)”.

You need to think about your situation. If your child is acquiring two or more languages from very early on (before age three or five depending on what you read), then they pass through the same stages as children who are acquiring one language. So after birth they’re making reflexive sounds, crying, and then gradually they start to babble, then to communicate intentionally where they try to draw your attention to something or communicate they don’t like something. They use gestures like pointing or lifting their arms up to indicate they want you to pick them up. First words come (any time from 8 – 15 months and even 18 months depending on what you read). Then two word combinations. Three words together and so on. It’s important to remember that when it comes to early language development, there is a lot of variation between children. That’s because each family has its unique language needs and uses the languages for different purposes with different people in different places. Balance can be an illusion and not something you have to strive for. The grammars of languages influence each other so you might see your child using utterances that mix words from your languages. That’s okay. Avoid the temptation to compare your child’s language development to their siblings or other children as it’s not a fair comparison.

Another scenario is where your child is exposed to one language at home until they start preschool or school. Let’s say they are five when they start school in another language. In this case your child has to learn the language for communicating with peers, the more academic language required for school, and the concepts for maths, for example. This takes a long time and again, it’s not reasonable to compare a child in this situation with a child who has been exposed to only one language from birth and is now attending school in that language. How long does it take? It depends on what you read, but a reasonable time frame is anywhere from three to seven years. The job of the speech and language therapist is to work out if a child has a true language problem, or is their language the way it is because they need more exposure to the languages.

There is a long tradition in the research of comparing speech and language development in monolingual children with that of multilingual children. It’s not accurate though to set the standard for speech and language development as a monolingual one. Multilingual children are not becoming monolingual speakers of all of their languages. It’s like comparing apples and pears. They’re both fruit, but they are distinct. Many factors affect a multilingual child’s language development from the age at which they start acquiring the languages, the amount of input they receive in each, the quality of that input, the number of opportunities for using their languages, the status of the languages in their society, and their own levels of motivation. These factors can vary over time and from family to family. Because we know for definite that speaking two or more languages doesn’t cause a language delay, then we know that the advice to drop one of them doesn’t make sense and is not supported by the literature. And the professional organisations for speech and language therapists recommend that we support all of a child’s languages. So if someone tells you that your child’s language is delayed because they’re bilingual, feel free to ignore them!

For more tips, have a look at Talk Nua. You can also join the Becoming Bilingual group on Facebook which was set up by myself and my colleague Nadja Herkner (another speech and language therapist) to support parents with questions about their multilingual children’s speech and language development. We’d love to see you there!

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Mary-Pat O'Malley

I am a speech & language therapist, lecturer, & researcher with a special interest in working with multilingual familes. I am also a PEaCH Ambassador for supporting multilingual families. I speak English & Irish.

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