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How to Spot Speech Delays When You’re Raising a Child in a Bilingual Home

How to Spot Speech Delays When You’re Raising a Child in a Bilingual Home

By Kristina Doyle, Fraser Speech-Language Pathologist • October 01, 2020

Teaching your child two languages has numerous benefits. Research has shown it can improve problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as the ability to multi-task. Children who learn two languages may do better in school, and it increases their empathy toward other cultures.  

But when your child is learning two languages, you may wonder how this will change his or her language development. Fraser Speech-Language Pathologist Kristina Doyle holds an advanced certificate in bilingual speech-language pathology. Doyle shares some things to watch for, and what you can do if you believe your child has a speech delay.

Watch for these developmental signs

According to Doyle, bilingual children should hit the same speech milestones as children who only speak one language. You should notice if your child is cooing, babbling or making gestures by the time he or she reaches the 12-month mark.

Between 9 -15 months, your child should begin to speak. For children at this age, Doyle says 50 words is considered within the normal range. For children who speak two languages, that can mean 25 words in one language and 25 in the other language. Parents may also wonder if a child knows “ball” in English and “ball” in Spanish, is that considered 1 or 2 words? Doyle says this is viewed as two words.

However, if your child speaks 15 words in each language or 30 total, your child is likely suffering from a speech delay.

Reach out for help if you only speak one language

If you’re a parent who speaks only one language, noticing a delay is more difficult. You won’t be quite sure how many words your child speaks in English, if you don’t speak English. Doyle suggests you enlist the help of someone like a teacher, babysitter or a family member who speaks English. Ask this person how your child sounds in English. You can ask questions like, “Can my child express what he or she wants?” or “Can you understand what my child says in English?”

An evaluation can provide answers

If you’re worried about your child’s development, Doyle recommends you get a speech evaluation. Even if you’re unsure, getting an assessment is helpful.

“If your child scores within the normal range, this tells you you’re on the right track,” Doyle says.

A speech-language pathologist may recommend therapy for a child who is delayed, or they may give you some strategies to work on at home.

Parents should advocate for their child

Doyle warns that bilingual children are more likely to be diagnosed with a speech disorder. This is partly because not all speech-language pathologists are trained to evaluate bilingual children. Standardized tests often used in speech evaluations are also created for children who speak only one language.

When Doyle evaluates bilingual children, she uses a combination of standardized tests and school-age language assessment measures (SLAM). SLAM, created by Dr. Cate Crowley, are picture cards that test a child’s ability to put the cards in order and then tell a story. Doyle says this gives a more complete picture for bilingual children and also helps create a better treatment plan.  

When your child gets a speech evaluation, don’t be afraid to ask what tests are being used. You can request the pathologist use more than one kind of test to evaluate your child.

A speech delay doesn’t have to limit your child

Even if your child has a speech delay, you can still enroll him or her in a dual-language immersion school, says Doyle. In the past, this was viewed as counterproductive for children, but recent research shows learning two languages is always beneficial to children.

For children struggling to express themselves, speaking another language provides another way for them to find words. Maybe your child can’t think of the word “baño” in Spanish, but the English word “bathroom” pops into his or her head. For children with other conditions, like autism spectrum disorder, this can be particularly helpful.

“Bilingualism is a continuum. We don’t know 100% of both languages at all times,” Doyle says. “This code-switching, where bilingual children access both vocabularies, helps improve their overall language outcomes.”