Today’s question was sent by fellow blogger Gabriela:

“Since my oldest son (3 years) was born we decided to speak to him only in Spanish, figuring that he would easily learn English later on. My plan was to start teaching him English gradually sometime after his 2nd birthday. However, I started noticing a speech delay around his 2nd birthday. At 2 1/2 I took him to be tested and he was found to have a speech delay.  However, the testing was mainly based on my reports of his use of words. The speech therapist recommended that we continue to use only Spanish at this time since using English as well would be confusing to a child with a speech delay. Further, he has not really received any type of speech therapy due to the fact that there are not any Spanish-speaking speech therapists around.

Recently, I have started introducing a little English to him since I noticed his vocabulary has expanded a bit more and my hope is that if he learns English he can recieve speech therapy if he continues to need it. He is even saying a few words in English now. And just recently he started putting two-word sentences together, but only after I request him to do so (but it is still visibly hard for him).

I guess my question is, should I continue using mainly Spanish or is it okay to speak to him some more in English now? I am a mental health therapist but currently a stay-at-home mom, and I feel sooo lost when it comes to speech issues.  Now I feel guilty for having only taught my son Spanish since this prevented him from getting the help he needs (speech therapy), but I do want him to be bilingual.”

Dear Gabriela,

It’s great that you have given your son a solid base in Spanish and that you want to introduce English now.  You have only recently started using English with your son and he is already using a few English words.  Clearly, he can learn English and Spanish words.

There is a very common misconception that teaching children two languages confuses them. Current research indicates that even for children who have speech and languages delays or impairments, they are not any more delayed or impaired as a result of learning two languages.  In fact, there is a lot of research that indicates improvements in cognitive flexibility and vocabulary learning as a result of learning two languages.

You did not mention where you live but if you are in the United States there are federally supported programs for birth-to-3-year-olds with language delays. These are available for all children with developmental delays—income is not a factor.  Now that your son is 3, the public school system provides programs for children with developmental delays.  I would also like to point you to a couple of resources that might be helpful.

Our team at Bilinguistics developed an intervention program, SMILE for Infants and Toddlers, aimed at enriching language in daily routines for children with language delays.  SMILE is an acronym for sign, model, imitate, label, and expand, five language enrichment techniques frequently used in language intervention.  It was developed for interventionists in early childhood programs, and includes a parent handbook. It is available through Children’s Publishing.

We also have a number of free resources available on our website.  They have been created for professional development workshops and continuing education courses but there is some very helpful information about the aspects of Spanish and English that overlap.  Addressing the overlapping areas can affect change in both languages.

It’s amazing how much guilt people are made to feel for trying to give their children the gift of two languages.  My advice to you is drop the guilt and pat yourself on the back for giving your son the opportunity to learn both English and Spanish.  The most important thing is that you create a rich language environment for your child by using one or both languages to talk to your child about the actions, objects, textures, sizes, colors, and senses of his environment as he experiences it.

Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Ellen Stubbe Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Ellen Stubbe Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

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 earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at 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.

As always, feel free to leave your thoughts or advice about this in the comments below. You can also leave your own question for the Experts here.

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