Bilingual Children: 9 helpful answers to common questions

If your child is one of the more than 15% of Aussie kids who speaks a second (or even third!) language, you may have questions about your child’s speech and language development.

These answers from speech pathologists at Kids First Children’s Services offer helpful advice for parents and educators.

Answers to your questions about your bilingual child

1. Is it true that all bilingual children start to speak later than children who only speak one language?

No it’s not true and there is no evidence to suggest that bilingual children learn to speak later than children who are monolingual. Sometimes, however, families are late to respond to their child’s speech delay because they incorrectly assume that their bilingualism was the cause of their son or daughter’s communication issues. All children learn to speak at different times and just as some monolingual children learn to speak later than others, some bilingual kids do too. Regardless of the language being spoken, if it seems that your child’s speech development is lagging behind their peers, seek professional advice.

2. My daughter sometimes answers me in English when I speak to her in our home language. Is this normal?

Many children use two languages when speaking to people who share their bilingualism and this is especially the case when they know that their parents have a very good working knowledge of English.  It’s actually a talent and shows that your child’s brain is working flexibly and efficiently! Children will use words that they know rather than not say anything at all. So, if your child knows the word for ‘chocolate’ in one language and not the other, she will use the word in the language she knows rather than not ask for chocolate at all. This is normal and a sign of strength!  Kids who can ‘swap’ between languages make use of all the language they have. As long as your child is getting plenty of practice in both languages, this use of her bilingual talent is nothing to worry about!

3. When our family came to Australia six months ago, my son couldn’t speak any English. He has started school and teachers tell us he doesn’t speak at all at school. Should I start speaking English to him at home to give him extra practice?

Many children who come to Australia have English as a second language, and lots of kids are ‘immersed’ into English speaking preschools and schools quite quickly upon arrival. Although it’s common for children to show reluctance to speak their new language for a period of time, there are lots of reasons for this and it’s worth considering what might be behind your son’s behaviour. The social pressure of the unpredictable playground may be part of the issue here. Can the classroom teacher shed any light on the situation? Perhaps your child is simply not wanting to talk until he feels he can do it well. Alternately, he may have been teased by other students and is feeling unhappy.

It’s worth remembering that your son’s home language is his first form of connection with your family, so if you stop speaking your home language altogether, he may feel cut off from everything they have known previously and this might make the situation worse.

The good news is that children who speak a home language confidently are more likely to eventually learn and use English well. There are many ways to encourage bilingual children to try to speak English more frequently, including playing translation games and having conversation competitions to see who can speak English for the longest time. Above all though, keep speaking the language that you are most competent in to your child. Correctly modelled speech, regardless of the language it is spoken in, is a powerful teaching tool for kids.

4. My wife and I live in Australia, but were born overseas where we were raised speaking different languages. Our children will be educated here. What language should we be speaking to them?

Contrary to what some people might think, children will not get confused by learning more than one language at home. In fact, the period between the ages of 0 and 12 is the perfect time for kids to learn two, or even three languages. This is because, developmentally, the frontal lobe of their brain is processing everything they hear and say as ‘one big language’. It’s natural for them to be taking it all in because learning is usually easy and fun at this stage of their lives. As children enter adolescence, the neural pathways in their brains become less ‘adventurous’ and start to ‘pare back’ meaning that kids’ brains have to find other ways to store new knowledge. So the message is – encourage bilingualism while your child is young!

Learning more than one language is great for your child’s development, but remember to speak to your children in a language that is natural and fluent for you. Although consistency is important and you may decide that one parent will speak a specific language to the child, that doesn’t have to be a rigid rule. There will probably be situations during which it will be appropriate to use the other language, and that’s perfectly fine!

5. My children tell me not to speak my language to them in the school playground or in public. How should I respond to this?

Children who are immersed in an English speaking preschool or school quickly work out that English a powerful social and learning tool. They might also, rightly or wrongly, sense that their peers value English over other languages. Take heart though! Researchers suggest that it is okay for you to keep speaking to your child in their first language, even if your child answers in English. Your child will understand what has been said and continue learning your home language, even if they are not speaking it as often as they once did. It’s important though, to respect your child’s sensitivities and to help your child understand the value of cultural diversity. When you speak to your child in front of their peers, it might be helpful to translate part of what you have said so that the peers feel included in the conversation. You may say something like ‘I just reminded Li that she has band practice this afternoon’ or ‘I just asked Philippe if assembly is on today.’

Advice for parents of bilingual children

6. I’m not teaching my child our family’s language. Is it okay for me to want him to learn English first and then learn our language later?

At Kids First, we meet many families from multi-cultural backgrounds who ask this question. As speech pathologists, psychologist and teachers we know that a child who develops good use of their family’s language is more likely to develop a sound understanding and ability to use English. The challenge is, if parents decide to exclusively use English, but don’t do so in a confident and fluent way, children will lose their mother tongue. When this happens, there is a chance that neither language will develop well and the child can end up having problems in both.

It is important to remember that the younger your child is the easier it is for them to learn a language. It will probably be easier for your child to learn to speak English as their second language than it was for you if you learned English as an Adult. Remember too, that in our digital age where communication with family and friends ‘at home’ in other countries is so easy, children can feel disconnected from their families if everyone around them is speaking a language they cannot understand.

7. We speak Cantonese at home and my three year old daughter has just started seeing a speech therapist. A friend has suggested that we speak only English so that my daughter doesn’t become confused. Would this be a good idea?

We always encourage parents to speak to their child in the language in which they are most competent and comfortable. If you stop speaking your language to your daughter who already has a speech problem there is a possibility that she will become even more isolated and struggle to speak. A child with a speech problem needs to be surrounded by speech and people who feel confident in their use of language so that she has positive role models and lots of opportunities to acquire language. Talk to your daughter’s speech therapist about your concerns so that you can work together to support her communication skills.

8. I speak a dialect that is not really a ‘formal’ language’. My sister thinks I should not teach my children how to speak it because it isn’t written down and is not spoken by ‘educated’ people in my homeland. Should I re-think my decision not to teach my kids how to speak my home language?

Being bilingual in any language can have a very positive impact on children‘s development and learning. Language also plays a key role in defining identity and by the time your children are teenagers, you may find that they crave this sense of ‘belonging’ to a wider group.  No language is better or more important than another and the fact that a language isn’t written down doesn’t mean it is not a language. If sharing a common language builds bonds with your children, by all means, teach them to use it.

9. My two and a half year old son is a ‘late talker’ and is not saying much in English or our home language, French. Is this normal for children who are exposed to two languages?

Children, whether they are bilingual or not, are considered late talkers when they are between 18 and 35 months old, understand what you say to them but have limited expressive vocabulary. This means that they don’t use a lot of words, they’re not able to put words together in short sentences, in either language.

To be considered a ‘late talker’ all other areas of your child’s development needs to be typical, and by this we mean things like their hearing, motor coordination, play skills and so on.

The Hanen Centre, a world respected Canadian organisation that supports parents and teachers who have children with speech and language difficulties, suggests that your late talking bilingual son or daughter should be seen by a speech therapist if:

Your child is 18 months old and not using at least 20 words, including different types of words, such as nouns or names of things (cup, ‘bickie’ for biscuit), verbs or doing words (eat, go), prepositions or location words (up, down), adjectives or describing words (hot, mine), and social words (hi, bye). They need different types of words so that they can combine them into phrases like ‘want juice’.

Or Your child is 24 months old and isn’t using at least 100 words or able to combine two words together. The word combinations need to be original and not conventional ones that most kids learn by rote such as ‘thank you’, ‘I want to’, ‘all gone’ and ‘what’s that? Examples of ‘real word’ combinations that the child hasn’t heard before include original phrases like “puppy gone” or “dirty dress”.

Worried about your bilingual child’s speech and language development?

At Kids First, we always recommend that you trust your instincts. It’s really never too early to seek advice and we find that the children of proactive parents who ask questions and deal with small issues early almost always achieve faster, easier improvement than those whose difficulties are picked up later and have more to catch up. Our speech pathologists have lots of experience supporting bilingual children and families, so call us on 9938 5419 if we can help your child.

© 2019 Kids First Children’s Services

We’re here to support you and your child - no matter what.

Chat to us today

School Ready: get the guide for school readiness you've been looking for