Does Bilingualism Cause Language Delay?

by COREY on MAY 31, 2010 · at http://www.multilingualliving.com/2010/05/31/does-bilingualism-multilingualism-cause-language-delay/

One of the most consistent things I was warned about many years ago when my husband and I decided to both speak German with our swaddled babe in arms was language delay.  Everyone told me not to worry if my son didn’t start speaking until later, as bilingual children are known to start speaking later and to be a bit linguistically confused at first.  Many told me to just expect it, as if it went hand in hand: “Bilingual children start speaking later, you know.”

Here is a quote from the American Academy of Family Physicians in 1999 (my son was born in 2001):

A bilingual home environment may cause a temporary delay in the onset of both languages. The bilingual child’s comprehension of the two languages is normal for a child of the same age, however, and the child usually becomes proficient in both languages before the age of five years.

I took all of this advice at face value eight years ago.  I’d even tell family not to expect my son to start speaking any time soon since he was growing up in a bilingual environment.  I’d defend our choice to raise our son bilingually acknowledging that, “Yes, I know he will be delayed in his language initially but it sounds like he’ll catch up in time.  We aren’t worried.”  However, I was a little worried and I would head home after such a conversation feeling a little uneasy in my stomach.  What if we weren’t doing the right thing?

Luckily, I came across work from Colin Baker, a researcher in childhood bilingualism.  His research findings reassured me.  The following is a quote from his book The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An Introduction for Professionals, published in 2000:

Raising children bilingually is sometimes believed to cause language delay, though evidence does not support this position. Raising children bilingually neither increases nor reduces the chance of language disorder or delay.

However, it wasn’t until a few months later when my friend’s bilingual daughter started speaking early (yes, early!) that I started to really take the research to heart.  Not only did my friend’s bilingual daughter not have language delay, she started speaking ahead of the curve!  And soon after that, while hanging out and chatting with some Latina friends, they told me that all but one of their children (both boys and girls) had started speaking either before or around the same time as their monolingual peers.  Now I was extremely intrigued!

Here is a quote from a 2006 report at the Center for Applied Linguistics:

Although many parents believe that bilingualism results in language delay, research suggests that monolingual and bilingual children meet major language developmental milestones at similar times.

Despite the ongoing research on childhood bilingualism and researchers around the world doing their best to get the word out, the belief that language delay is a byproduct of bilingualism is still an ongoing misconception.  Articles continue to come out making this claim or cautioning parents about this “truth.”  After the discussion last week on Multilingual Living about language delay and Austism, I did some Google searches and quickly came up with a list of articles from well-meaning professionals on different sites offering similar advice as thisspeech and language pathologist:

…if a child is experiencing a speech and language delay/disorder, then two languages may be too challenging for them. At this point, I often tell parents of bilingual homes to choose a primary language so the child can develop a good understanding and use of one language to communicate.

It is hard to blame anyone for offering this advice with respect to language delay and disorders (she is only one of many who give this advice in cyberspace), as many in the medical establishment are still teaching it.  Perhaps this myth about language delay has hung around for so long because it seems to make a kind of logical sense: Being exposed to multiple languages which each represents its own words for the same thing must cause confusion and thus a language delay in using words, right?

However, children aren’t exactly having to “learn” twice as many words, like I did in my high school French class.  They don’t have to think about which language bucket to put each word into.  Our bilingual children are picking up something more like packages of sounds that they are hearing around themselves.   They are simply putting the sounds together in the context that they hear them.  As their little brains become more complex, they start to understand concepts like words and sentences and parts of speech.  Basically what this means is that language learning is in itself a complex process (and what an amazing feat!) whether our children are doing this in one or more languages.

Here is cutting-edge research from the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab from May of last year:

Although some parents and educators may have concerns about the potential for confusion, bilingual children do not suffer language confusion, language delay, or cognitive deficit.

Here are some things to remember:

  • Research shows that bilingual children start speaking within the same time frames as monolingual children.  Some children start speaking before we expect it to happen and others much later, regardless of the number of languages spoken in the home.  Thus, keep an eye on your children’s overall language development in general and check with a trusted speech therapist if you are concerned.
  • Bilingual children can have the same speech and cognitive disorders as monolingual children.  It is important for us to understand this.  Just because your child is bilingual doesn’t mean he or she is free from all language disorders!  If you are concerned that your child has a speech disorder, make sure to get it checked out as soon as you can.  But if you are told that you need to switch to a monolingual household, ask the therapist why this is being recommended and possibly consider getting a second opinion from a therapist who understands the role that bilingualism plays in a growing child’s life.  Ask the therapist to show you specific research which proves that switching to a monolingual household will make a significant difference in your child’s therapy success.
  • Children in a bilingual household do not need to be “taught” a language to ensure that they get it right.  Language learning itself is a complex process which your child is working through step by step based on the surrounding verbal input.  Just use your languages as much as possible with your children and their brains will do the work of putting it all together.

For an insightful discussion about bilingualism and language delay, read the Ask Madalenaanswer and comments to Help! Does He Have Language Delay, Autism or Neither? I expect we will have many more articles on this topic.

And visit these other valuable sites supporting families raising children in more than one language: Spanglishbaby has a nice list of articles in today’s Bilingualism Doesn’t Cause Confusion post and Multilingual Mania has a post about Austism and Multilingualism.  I’m sure there are many more out there!

Did anyone ever tell you that bilingualism can cause language delay?  If so, was your therapist supportive of your family’s multilingualism or were you encouraged to switch to a monolingual household?  Are you concerned that your child might have a speech or cognitive disorder currently but are worried to see a speech therapist for fear you will be told to stop raising your child bilingually?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living MagazineMultilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 11, 9 and 7, in German and English.