Bilingual is Better

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

“I have been reading many interesting posts here and have found relief in knowing that no one way is the best to raise bilingual kids. I was also happy to see the evidence that supports that bilingualism does not cause confusion. My questions is, can bilingualism cause a delay in speech, though?

I am an elementary teacher and a mom to a 22 month old girl. We live in California and my daughter is exposed daily to both English and Spanish: English mostly (but not exclusively) by dad, since it is his native language, and Spanish by me and her baby sitter. At this point she says about 10 words and then other sounds that stand for words but these are not real words, rather vowel sounds. Speaking of vowel sounds, she does not articulate the “o” or the “u” vowel sounds in Spanish. I am just wondering if there is cause for concern and if I should address this with a speech specialist.

The hard part is that we are moving to Spain in a couple of weeks, and because she is exposed to English, maybe that would not give the specialist the right information to work with (I don’t think many of them in Spain have experience with bilingual kids).”

Dear Susana,

Research in our field indicates that bilingualism does not cause confusion or delays in speech acquisition (sound production) or language acquisition (words and word combinations). Studies on the acquisition of sounds in Spanish-English bilingual children indicates that children may, for a short time, demonstrate less accuracy in the production of consonant sounds when the sounds are not identical in both languages, but these differences do not greatly affect their intelligibility, or ability to be understood by others. An example is the production of the sounds [p], [t], and [k], which are pronounced with less aspiration or airflow in Spanish than in English. A child who learns these sounds in Spanish might use them the same way in English. While their productions are considered less accurate in English, they are still within the normal range of production and can still be understood. Accuracy is not reduced for sounds that are the same in both languages.

You mentioned that your daughter does not use the “o” and “u” vowel sounds of Spanish. These sounds also occur in the English language so it would not be expected that they would be influenced or reduced in accuracy as a result of exposure to both English and Spanish.

With regard to language acquisition, research indicates that the vocabulary of children who are bilingual is similar in size to that of monolingual children. We often look at the number of different concepts children express in words in both languages. We give children “credit” for all of the concepts they express in words in both languages. For example, “dog,” “perro,” and “cat” represent two concepts because “dog” and “perro” are translation equivalents. By 18 months of age, children typically have or are approaching 50 words (concepts) and are at the early stages of producing 2-word phrases.

You stated that your daughter is 22 months of age and uses approximately 10 different words. Given this information, I would recommend that you have her evaluated by a bilingual speech-language pathologist. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (www.asha.org) has a search option for finding speech-language pathologists (SLPs) in your area. They list ASHA accredited SLPs all over the world so if you are already in Spain, this might be a helpful way to find someone who can provide an evaluation.

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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