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Bilingualism: Myths and Tips

In a culturally diverse country like Australia, close to 20% of the population speak another language at home. Many children grow up in families where they speak one language at home (their ‘mother tongue’) and English when attending day care, kinder and school. Many parents are concerned about the effect of their child’s bilingualism on their speech and language development. It’s time to bust some myths about bilingualism!

My child is a late talker because they are bilingual
Some children start speaking before we expect it to happen and others much later, regardless of the number of languages spoken in the home. Your child’s language acquisition will not be impacted on by a second language as they will acquire words in both languages. However, it is important to keep an eye on your children’s overall language development in general and check with a speech pathologist if you are concerned.

My child is stuttering because they are bilingual
Stuttering is caused by factors such as genetics, environmental differences and socio-emotional pressures. Bilingualism does not cause stuttering and children will stutter despite the number of languages that they speak. You may notice that your child is having difficulty finding the right words to express their ideas resulting in an increase in normal speech dysfluency. It is important to monitor your child’s fluency in their strongest language and to seek advice from a speech pathologist if your child continues to stutter for longer than 6 months.

My child has a language delay because they are bilingual
While a bilingual child’s vocabulary in each individual language may be smaller than average, their total vocabulary across both languages will be the same as a monolingual child. It is therefore important to consider how many words your child has across both (or more) languages when querying language delay. Your child may go through a ‘silent’ on ‘non-verbal’ period when first exposed to a new language. This can last from a few weeks to several months before they start speaking both languages.

My child is finding it difficult learning and speaking two languages
Children are capable of learning two languages simultaneously without particular cognitive difficulty. The brain does not add language information but processes it in a much more complex way and can easily handle two languages at once. If a child is having difficulty speaking, it is important to seek help from a speech pathologist.

My child is not proficient at speaking either language
Bilingual children (and adults) are rarely equally proficient in both languages. You may find that your child has a ‘dominant language’, so a language of greater proficiency. The dominant language is often influenced by a child’s exposure to it, for example, a child’s mother tongue will be their dominant language until they commence school. This can change with age, circumstance and education to the majority language of the society in which the individual lives in.

Here are some tips for talking with your bilingual child:
– It is important that you continue to use all languages introduced to the child. Do not be concerned about mixing different languages in one sentence as this is natural for bilingual children.
– Be consistent in your choice of words to name objects. Both parents should use the same words for a particular item.
– If you feel confident speaking both languages, spend a few hours speaking in both English and mother tongue at different times of the day.
– Be comfortable with your use of language. The most important thing is that your child learns one language well.
– The focus should be helping the child feel successful in giving and receiving a message. Continue speaking your chosen language to your child even if he or she speaks back to you in a different language. If the child responds the message has been understood.
– Whichever language you decide to use, keep it simple.
– Use short phrases with lots of gesture and facial expression, as well as expression in your voice. This will help the child understand the meaning behind the words.
– Encourage your child’s attempts to communicate in either language and praise them for doing so.
– Use nursery rhymes and stories from any culture/language.

Here are some tips for talking with your bilingual child if they have any speech and language difficulties as stated by a speech pathologist:

– Continue speaking your own language. If you wish to introduce new languages to your child then choose to do this at special times, e.g. on the way to school, bath time, in the supermarket, dinner time, in the park etc.
– Keep words and gestures consistent. If both parents speak different languages to the child, it is natural to switch between the two languages, but keep the vocabulary consistent.
– Keep language simple and context bound: use short phrases when talking, use lots of repetition and keep modelling language to your child.
– Use gesture, facial expression, and body language to help your child understand you.
– Encourage and praise attempts from your child to communicate in any way or language – show them you are interested.
– Use nursery rhymes and stories from any culture and language – these can be shared with your child’s day care, kinder or school.

If you have any concerns about your child’s speech and language skills or their fluency, please consult a speech pathologist.

Happy talking!

References:
https://yourlanguage.org/research/
http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Bilingualism-in-Young-Children–Separating-Fact-fr.aspx
http://www.londonsigbilingualism.co.uk/

Lindy Sadriu is one of our experienced Speech Pathologists working at our Ormond clinic Monday to Friday. Lindy has a particular interest in bilingualism in children and experience working in all areas of Speech-Language Pathology.

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