Bilingual is Better

The following question was sent by Sandra Villalobos. You can also send your question to the Experts by clicking here.

My son has language delays. I guess it is because we speak Spanish and English at home.  My native language is Spanish and my husband’s is English. Before my son was born we researched the best way to help Ian learn both languages: the general recommendation from a multitude of sources is “one-person, one-language.”  My husband mostly follows that recommendation, but I do not.  I think that as we will live in Latin America for a while Ian will naturally have more opportunities to learn Spanish than English. Then, all of the extra resources to help him speak are in English: books, videos, songs, etc. Almost always this material is reviewed together by Ian and me, so it is unavoidable that I speak English.  When we started doing homeschooling (there is no school for my son here -we live in a rural town in Mexico), I really did not know which language I should speak during the lessons. Finally, I spoke in English and that pushed me to keep speaking in English through the day to show him the application of the vocabulary. But, as I am not very fluent in English, I speak to him in Spanish too.

My son is speaking only English. I know he can understand me when I speak in Spanish to him, but he does not say a word in Spanish.

So, I wonder if all this will be a hindrance as Ian’s language skills develop.  Could you give some advice on how to help my son’s language develop? (He is 27 months).  Thanks.

Sandra Villalobos

Hi Sandra-
Kudos for the efforts you and your husband are making to raise your son bilingually. First and foremost I want to reassure you that research indicates that raising a child bilingually does not cause a language/speech delay.  I was unsure from your letter if your child was diagnosed by a speech-language pathologists as having a language delay.  Therefore, I will touch on two points (bilingual language development and  varying language delivery methods) in hopes of providing you with some helpful information.

Looking at Bilingual Language Development

One think to keep in mind in understanding bilingual language development is the importance of examining the child’s language skills globally (summed skills in both Spanish and English).  Often children will demonstrate knowledge of a concept in one language (e.g. certain foods), yet will identify an alternate concept in the other language (e.g. colors); likely depending on the language used to expose them to that particular concept. The expectation is that when all concepts are “summed” (i.e. getting “credit” for individual concepts in both languages) they generally show a similar number of concepts/vocabulary knowledge as a monolingual child. The mistake would be examining their concept knowledge/vocabulary in only one language; which does not accurately reflect their full language abilities.  Research indicates that when looked at as a whole, a bilingual child reaches similar language milestones as a monolingual child (See Barbara Pearson’s work).

You mentioned that receptively he responds to both languages. Expressively, you noted he is using only English; however, I was unsure of the vocabulary size or length of utterances he is using.  What I can share is that for a child his age he should globally have approximately 200-300 words/concepts and be constructing two-word combinations.  One suggestion to incorporate in your daily activities is Label, Label, and Label.  Keep engaging your son in language rich activities.  Name the items he eats, plays with, and puts on.  Give him choices to assist in vocabulary development.  Look at story books/pictures/ things outside, pointing, finding, and labeling objects and actions can be incorporated into almost any environment you are in.  I know you said you live in a rural town so I am not sure of the accessibility for a play group? Also, if you continue with concerns of his language development it may be helpful to seek advice from a certified Speech Language Pathologist. I am not familiar with Mexico’s process for this or your access to one?  The American Speech Hearing  Association has a website with information that may assist you.

Which Language do I use?

The method of One Parent One Language, while a popular method, is only one style of raising a bilingual child; every family is different ,therefore the language delivery in each home will vary and that is “Ok!”  Children learn to differentiate between the languages spoken to them, be it English by Dad, Spanish by mom, or English and Spanish by Mom.  Research points out that there is no evidence that children with typical development nor children with a language delay become “confused” by hearing the parent speak two languages. There is nothing wrong with you and your husband using a language combination that you feel comfortable with and that works for your family dynamics.

We hope this has been of some help.


Adrianne Arrieta-Morales and Ellen Kester

Ellen Stubbe Kester, Ph.D, CCS-LLP – A bilingual (English/Spanish) speech language professional who earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She is the President of Bilinguistics, which is “dedicated to enhancing speech and language services for Spanish-English bilingual children, enabling those children to achieve their highest communicative and academic potential.” You can read her answers here.

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