Bilingual is Better

Today´s question was sent by Jeffrey Chien, father of a 3-year-old girl.

“Hi.  My question is a slight variation to the one regarding bilingual children with speech delay. We live in the United States. My daughter is about to turn 3 and has recently been diagnosed with severe speech delay with the expressive level at 11 months and the receptive level at 14 months. She has also been evaluated by child psychologists and their conclusion is that she has some autistic features but is not ruled in for Autistic Spectrum Disorder due to her severe speech delay. Their recommendation is for her to get into the Speech-Language Classes through the local school district and get re-evaluated in 6 months.

Since she was born, I have been speaking to her in Mandarin Chinese (my native language) and my wife, who is a native English speaker and knows very little Mandarin, spoke to her in English and and some phrases in Mandarin Chinese that she picked up from me. We also have a babysitter that speaks Spanish to her since she was one.
Since she has been diagnosed with speech delay about 1.5 months ago, my wife has been speaking to my daughter 100% in English. Now my wife is asking me to drop the Mandarin Chinese completely and speaks to my daughter only in English. Do you think this is the right approach? My wife is a stay-at-home mom and I work full-time so I see my daughter about 1-2 hours on weekdays and all day on weekends. Thank you so much for your help.”

Dear Jeffrey,

Congratulations to you and your wife for providing your daughter with exposure to both of your languages/cultures.  More than half of the world’s population is bilingual so your family is more the norm than the exception.

There are two important points I want to make.  First, learning two (or more) languages does not cause language delay/impairment. Second, children who have language delays are not made more delayed by exposure to more than one language.  Current research indicates that it is not detrimental for children with language delays to be exposed to more than one language.  Studies have found that children with language delays who are in dual language environments gain language at the same rate at those in monolingual environments.

One important thing that we always like to consider is the language model that children are exposed to.  You mentioned that your wife knows very little Mandarin Chinese so it makes sense for her to stop using Mandarin with your daughter because she can provide richer language input in English.  Your English is obviously very strong so you can provide rich language input in both languages.

The language that a child hears strongly influences the language the child produces.  You mentioned that your daughter is with your wife hearing English all day every day and is with you for 1-2 hours on the weekdays and is with both of you on the weekends.  Given that information, your daughter will probably have a larger vocabulary in English and will have a stronger representation of the structure of English than Mandarin.  Do not let that discourage you from using your native language with your daughter. Often people do not realize what they are asking parents to give up when they suggest that a parent stop using their native language with their child. Language is an integral part of culture and if you do not give that gift to your children early in life, it can be much more difficult to do later in life.

The recommendation from the school district for your daughter to start speech-language classes and be re-evaluated in 6 months sounds like a very appropriate recommendation given the details you shared.  When the re-evaluation is completed in six months, be sure you are a part of the team since you are the one who can best share what your daughter understands and says in Mandarin Chinese.

Best of luck to you. 祝你好運 ( zhù nǐ háoyùn),

Ellen Kester, Ph.D.

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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