Supporting Bilingual Language Development

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Lisa Gadsby and I gave a talk at the L’École du Parc nursery school in Clapham on supporting bilingual and multilingual children. More than half the children at L’École du Parc are bilingual, speaking both French and English, and the nursery has some families where as many as four different languages are spoken at home.

Marianne Brown

The nursery’s parents’ association wanted us to advise on the nature of bilingual development, how it differs from monolingual development and how best to approach teaching children two languages at once. In the talk we explained some of the signs indicating developmental problems to look out for, and advised on which issues should resolve on their own. The talk was aimed at parents, but the teachers who attended also found it very useful.

The parents’ association reproduced some of the talk in their newsletter in the form of a Q&A, which I have included below.

Q&A Session With Marianne Brown

1.  What is your experience with multilingualism? Do you see a lot of multilingual children in London and specifically in the SW area?

At Children’s Therapies many of our clients have two or more languages spoken at home, simply because London is so cosmopolitan. Apart from families relocating here from abroad (to ‘Nappy Valley’), many couples meet here from different countries so their children learn both languages. For this reason, all our SLTs in our team are very familiar with the facts of bilingualism.

2.  Are there any myths about multilingualism that are not true?

Yes - firstly bilingualism does not cause language delay. Children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children but will still be within the ‘typical’ age range when they do start to talk.

Their vocabulary in each language may be smaller to start with but the sum of the two languages will be at least equal to a monolingual child’s. Their grammar will develop in line with a single language learner. All children catch up eventually, even if they go through a ‘silent’ period first.

Secondly, it’s a myth that a child who mixes up their two (or more) languages is not learning them proficiently. This is a very normal stage of language development and is not a problem. We advise parents to repeat back the sentence accurately at the time this happens, rather than criticising the mistake directly, as this often makes children reluctant to try next time.

3.  Are there any ‘ do’ and ‘don’t dos’ as a parent whose children are being brought up in more than one language?

There is no need to have a ‘one parent-one language’ strategy at home. Children will learn both languages spoken at home even if each parent switches between them. It is a good idea to decide between you whether you want to follow a consistent strategy (e.g. French at home, English outside the house) while the children are still very young, so they do not miss out on either language. The priority is for the parents to be comfortable and the language to be as natural as possible. The most important consideration is for your child to be exposed to accurate and regular experiences of both languages, both listening to and using it themselves, when they are ready. Stopping one language to try to help the child focus on the ‘majority’ language is not necessary and we do not encourage this.

4.  There have been recent studies about the fact that a child who is multilingual would develop a more flexible way of thinking? What do you think about those?

Yes, there are many studies that have found bilingual children are more able to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distractions. Also, that they can be more creative and better at planning and problem solving than monolingual children. When you add to this the wider employment markets and even the evidence that bilingualism delays the onset of brain ageing and even dementia in adults, it’s a very positive skill to develop!

5.  On the opposite, does multilingualism delay speech and proficiency in languages? What red flags should a parent watch for in a 2 to 4-year-old’s speech development?

If a child has speech and language delay it will be obvious in both languages, not just one. If the nursery teacher raises concerns when your child starts school, they may query your child’s skills in both languages if they do not speak both themselves. If one language is much stronger, the other is likely to catch up.

If the child has a vocabulary of less than 20 words by 20 months, this could show a delay in development. Also, if he is not putting two words together and has limited vocabulary between 2-3 years, I would advise you see your GP for a referral to the local NHS SLT team. We are here to help if you have any questions about ‘normal’ development too.

6.  During your talk you mentioned the importance of building blocks, which are key to a child’s speech development. Could you tell us a bit more about those?

When an SLT assesses a child, we look at the foundation skills for communication. These include the child’s looking, attention and hearing/listening skills, play development and concentration. They need all of these to learn language from their parents. We often find that a delay in one of these areas hugely impacts on a child’s more obvious language skills, such as understanding what is being said, remembering what they hear and using their own words and sentences. They need these building blocks for language learning to understand and use their home languages.

If you are interested in having us deliver the talk 'Early Communication and Bi/Tri-lingual Language Development,' or any other talk at your nursery or parent group, please call us on 0208 6737930 to discuss your requirements.

Lizz Summers

Voice & Presentation Skills Coach