Bilingual is Better

“My personal story is the following: our daughter, Sofia, is 33 months old and her use of “understandable” words is extremely limited – maybe a handful of words and no phrases. She does speak all day in her “own language” – blabbering and using intonation. She does understand some of what we say to her (acknowledging with a smile or a frown/cry or following a request), and she uses mainly her language and some body language to communicate with us (e.g. she will come and take our hand for us to reach something that she can’t). Sometimes, though, she grows very frustrated when we can’t immediately understand what she is trying to communicate. I know it’s not a hearing issue as she does react/interact when we speak with her or even when we call her from another room; she also loves music and dancing (she has a very good sense of rhythm). We live in Argentina so the environment is Spanish speaking. My husband’s native tongue is English and mine is Spanish, but we both speak each other’s languages as well. So I must admit that among ourselves we interchange the use of language all the time (this is at times messy …). We’ve recently read that it is all important that each parent speaks exclusively in their own native tongue to the child and in her presence. So we have now, quite recently, started to do this. We have also recently started bonding with her much more – we are spending significantly more time in one-on-one play with her – me speaking Spanish to her and my husband speaking English to her. So we are also doing a lot more family activities with her like eating all together at the table, kitchen chores, etc.

I would still be very interested in expert advice to see if we are on the right track here or if we should be doing something differently with the use of our two languages at home. We want to be respectful of Sofía’s developmental pace but we just want to make sure that we are doing all that we can to support her progress and also that we are not missing any potential problems.

Finally, we would also be curious to know if delayed speech production in bilingual babies is sometimes misdiagnosed/misunderstood as a connection problem between the baby and other people.

Thanks for your help!

Cristina and Scott”

Dear Cristina and Scott,

Thank you for your questions.  I will start with your question about bilingual models and will then address your questions about speech-language delay.

There are many ways to create bilingual environments for your children.  My philosophy is that it is best to adopt the model that comes most naturally to you, as that is the one that will likely result in the greatest success.   The model you described, in which each parent speaks to the child in a different language, is the “one parent one language” method.  Given that your native tongue is English, Scott, and yours is Spanish, Cristina, it seems like a very appropriate choice to use your native tongue when communicating with Sofia.

Let’s talk about Sofia now.  You mentioned a number of things that suggest a possible communication impairment.  You did not mention whether or not you have had an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist, psychologist, or other developmental specialist.  If you have not, I would strongly recommend you do that.

You mentioned that Sofia is almost 3-years old and has very few words and no phrases.  Children with typical language development (monolingual or bilingual) typically have 50 words and start combining two words at about 18 months.  In the second year of life children typically acquire hundreds of words and by three years of age children can use complete sentences and start using complex sentences.  Based on your description, Sofia’s language skills appear to be significantly behind.

Several of the things you said would make me want to explore her joint attention, which is a child’s ability to share their experiences with others through gestures or eye gaze.  Joint attention is an important component of social language.  You asked whether “delayed speech production in bilingual babies is sometimes misdiagnosed/misunderstood as a connection problem between the baby and other people.” This reduced connection goes deeper than language.  When we see children who have difficulty connecting socially with other children, we see that across their languages.  The dual language environment is not the cause of it, nor will it have a negative impact on it.  A treatment plan for a child with limited social language will focus in increasing joint attention and social interaction in either or both languages.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA.org) has a provider locator that includes speech-language pathologists worldwide.  You can also search the ASHA website for information and research articles on joint attention.

Best,

Ellen 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 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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