4 things that will reassure you about raising bilingual children

Do you every worry about raising bilingual children? If, so here are 4 things that will reassure you.

#1 Bilinguals are not the rare oddity…they are in fact the world’s best kept secret

I know sometimes it can feel fairly lonely if you’re a minority language speaker, surrounded by majority language speakers. But hopefully it’ll reassure you to know that more than half of the world’s population uses two or more languages every single day. So there’s about 7.2 billion people in the world right now. Now, I was never very good at maths but 50% of 7.2 billion is about 3.5 billion bilingual people- in other words, a LOT of people.

Bilingualism is everywhere- more than 50% in Europe, 35% in Canada, 20% in the USA (that alone is 55 million people). I live in a little city in Ireland called Galway and almost 20% of the population is from a wide range of nations. There are 199 different nations represented in Ireland. There are more people in the world with English as a second language than there are speakers with English as a native language. So if you’re having doubts about being bilingual, you can rest assured that you are actually in the majority. Now there’s wide variation in the language combinations and experiences of bilingual & multilingual families which leads me to #2:

#2 Normal? What do you mean normal?

Before I became a parent, I was rarely anxious or worried. However, on October 6th 2010, that all changed with the birth of my daughter. Suddenly there were lots of things to worry about including ‘Is she developing normally?’ For bilingual parents, a persisting concern is ‘Will being bilingual delay my child’s language development?’ Here is the undisputable answer: No it will not. First words generally emerge between 8- 15 months depending on what you read. By age 2, children should be putting two words together. Starting at age 3, sentences should become longer and more complex. There is considerable variation in bilingual language development relating to things like the amount of exposure to the languages and multiple, meaningful opportunities in each of the languages.

Now there are various attitudes to what being bilingual means. I read recently that in Europe expectations tend to be quite high as to who should be considered bilingual. And when I ask my speech and language students, most of them think you have to be fluent to be bilingual but really it’s a matter of what you need the languages for- so it could be for talking to grandparents, for education so reading and writing, for religion and many other reasons.  Onto #3 now and causes for concern.

 #3 Alarm Bells!  

So when should you be concerned? Very often when parents are concerned, their intuition is spot on. Bilingual children are just as likely as other children to experience speech, language, or communication problems- between 5-8% of children, again depending on what you read. Here are some things that should ring alarm bells:

  • Your child doesn’t smile or engage with you (from birth and older)
  • Your child doesn’t understand what others say or doesn’t seem to learn new words (in either of the languages) (from 7 months-2 years)
  • Your child says only a few words (from 12-18 months)
  • You find it hard to understand what they are trying to tell you (from 18 months-2 years). By 18 months, you should be able to understand about 25% of what they say. By 2 years, you should be able to understand 50-75% of what they say.
  • Your child doesn’t put words together to make sentences (beginning at about 1.5-3 years)

If you are worried, seeing a speech and language therapist early is best. But rest assured that being bilingual is definitely NOT causing any speech, language, or communication delay no matter what some professionals may tell you! Finally, #4, when to switch off the alarm bells.

#4 Turn off the alarm

Here are some signs of uneven development in the languages- these are not a problem, just a reflection of the language input, opportunities, and preferences:

  • Knowing many more words in one language than in another
  • Seldom or never using one of the languages for some words
  • Pronouncing the words ‘wrong’ in one language but using the same sounds in the other language(s)
  • Eager to learn words in one language but not the other(s)
  • Able to express themselves grammatically in one language but not the other(s)
  • Fluent in one language but not the other(s)
  • Sometimes choosing the ‘wrong’ language with the ‘wrong’ person

If you’re still worried about your child’s language development, have a look at www.identifythesigns.org for more information.

I’d love to hear what you found most helpful/interesting in this article in the comments below.

Inspired by:

  • Francois Grosjean at Psychology Today http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html
  • American Speech & Hearing Association’s Identify the Signs initiativewww.identifythesigns.org
  • Wei,L., Miller, N., Dodd, B., & Hua Z. (2008). Childhood Bilingualism: distinguishing difference from disorder in Ball. M. (ed.). Clinical Sociolinguistics. London: Wiley.

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4 things that will reassure you about raising bilingual children | guest post on Trilingual Mama

Hi! I’m Dr. Mary-Pat O Malley-Keighran- lecturer, author, researcher, speech and language therapist, and lover of all things to do with speech, language, and communication. I have over 20 years’ experience of working with families and 14 years of teaching speech and language students. Basically, I’m all about how we say what we say and how that makes us feel.

9 Responses

  1. Hi Maria, Dia duit Mary-Pat!
    I love the idea of turning alarm bells off! There are too many alarm bells these days. I only listen to the ones that persist but it’s nice to hear that from an expert!
    Thanks to you both for the great article!
    Una (a fellow Trinity graduate!)

  2. Mary-Pat says:

    Dia is Muire dhuit Una!! Delighted you found the article useful, fellow Trinity graduate!! If there’s anyway I can be of help, please let me know.

    • Maria says:

      Mary-Pat, thanks again for your wonderful post that has been very popular! I’m sure you have reassured (and encouraged) many bilingual parents!

  3. hilda says:

    Thank you Maria for sharing, I have a love for languages and also I raised a trilingual daughter, Is so important to be open to other cultures and make us a global citizens .

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