My child is learning two languages: what do I need to know about bilingual development?

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More than half of my clients are growing up in homes where English is not the first or only language. I think it’s a great thing. Bilingualism is a tremendous asset living on this increasingly connected planet. We need more of it in Australia.

But there’s a catch: with bilingualism comes a whole host of worries and concerns about what is best for a child’s language development.

All families I work with want the best for their kids. But there is so much conflicting information out there about bilingual language development. Some of it is based on old ideas. Others are myths that are not supported by the evidence. This makes it hard for parents to make informed decisions about important issues for toddlers and pre-school children.

At least once a week, I’m asked for my views on questions like these:

  • Will my child get confused between the two languages?
  • Should one parent should speak the “home” language, and the other parent speak English?
  • Should parents speak to their child in English, even if they are not fluent themselves?
  • Should parents send their child to an English-speaking pre-school or daycare centre before school?

So here’s what the peer-reviewed research evidence says:

1. Parents should speak their native language with their children

  • As noted above, bilingualism is an asset – not a liability.
  • Many parents want to maintain their cultural heritage. Language is an important part of that heritage.
  • For parents who cannot speak English fluently, speaking broken English to a child may do more harm than good. It is much better for the child to hear a language being spoken fluently, especially in the early years.
  • Children from homes in which the first language was in addition to English show stronger cognitive outcomes than children from immigrant homes in which only English was spoken (Winsler et al., 2014).
  • There is some evidence that higher order language comprehension and literacy skills transfer from one language to another. For example, children who are good at reading in one language tend also to be good at reading in English (Oller et al., 2002, although it’s worth noting that the languages studied in this study were both European).
  • There is some evidence that interventions to help a child read in their first language can have positive effects on the child’s reading in English (Goldenberg et al., 2011).
  • There is evidence that immigrant families who can speak their parents’ native language have better family relationships and stronger ethnic identities that those who cannot, and that good family relationships and strong ethnic identity are positively related to other outcomes including academic achievement (e.g. Oh & Fuligni, 2010, Tseng & Fuligni, 2000).

2. There is no “one-size fits all” approach to raising bilingual children

Home differs in:

  • the balance of languages;
  • the number of speakers who use each language;
  • the proportion of each language that comes from native speakers;
  • how much adults talk and read to children;
  • the number and age of the children in the household; and
  • the complexity of language used.

Bilingual children who attend school tend to use their first language at home and English at school and outside the home. Young bilingual children with siblings at school are likely to have more advanced English and weaker native language skills than children the same age without older siblings. Childcare arrangements are another source of variability in language development.

In short, bilingual children are extremely varied in their levels and profiles of dual language skills.

3. Speaking two languages at home does not confuse children. Children can learn two languages at the same time

  • Back in the 1990s, people thought that speaking two languages to your children would confuse them. We now know that’s wrong.
  • Infants are good at distinguishing languages. If they hear two languages at home, they develop two separate systems for speech sounds, words and word meanings, and grammar. Of course, the languages influence each other. But kids don’t get confused (e.g. Byers-Heinlein et al., 2010; Werker, 2012, Lin & Johnson, 2010).

4. Languages do not need to be kept separate for children to learn them

  • I often hear people say that one-parent should speak the home language and the other should speak English. There is no evidence to support this idea.
  • Studies show that the degree of mixing languages is not related to the children’s skills in their home language or English (e.g. Place et al., 2011, Hoff et al., 2011).
  • There is no evidence that mixing languages at home stops children from realising they are hearing two languages or acquiring them. However, there is some limited evidence to suggest that parents should try to avoid mixing up the languages within individual sentences/utterances when talking with 18-month olds (Byers-Heinlein, 2013).

5. Learning two languages takes longer than learning one

This seems obvious. But there were some small, early studies that suggested that bilingual children acquire two languages at the same rate monolingual children acquire one. (e.g. Pearson et al., 1993). This view may have contributed to the over-diagnosis of language learning impairment in bilingual children.

We now know that bilingual children lag slightly behind monolingual children of the same age in their vocabulary and grammatical development when measured in each language separately (e.g. Bialystock & Feng, 2011, Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, Marchman et al., 2010, Vag et al., 2009).

We also know that bilingual children’s phonological (speech sound) skills and narrative skills are closer to monolingual levels than their vocabulary and grammar (Oller et al., 2007; and Paradis & Kirova, 2014). This is why I always test narrative ability and screen speech sounds when assessing bilingual children for possible language learning impairments.

Compared to monolingual children, it’s more common for bilingual children’s receptive language abilities (understanding of language) to be significantly stronger than their expressive language skills (Ribot, 2014).

6. It can take a long time for bilingual children to “catch up”

In grammar, if bilingual children are exposed to continued, consistent and quality exposure to two languages spoken fluently, they tend to catch up to monolingual children by the age of 10 years (Gathercole & Thomas, 2007).

Even adult bilinguals tend to have smaller vocabularies in each of their languages than monolinguals, although there are obviously exceptions. The size of the vocabulary gap diminishes with age (Hoff et al., 2014).

7. Bilingual children often score within the normal range on language tests in their “dominant language”

Diminished exposure to a language affects language acquisition. Two-year olds with a balanced input of two languages lag significantly behind monolinguals in each language. Children’s skills in each language are significantly related to the proportion of their input that is in that language (Hoff et al., 2012; Pearson et al., 1997).

There is some evidence that even 80% exposure to one language is not sufficient to reach the level of a typically developing monolingual child (DeAnda et al., in press). However, although learning two languages takes longer than acquiring one, it does not take twice as long.

8. Bilingual children can have different strengths in each language

For example, bilingual children:

  • may know words to do with things at home in their first language;
  • may know words to do with things for school in English; and
  • may have equal comprehension in each language, but better expressive language skills in one language – hence the commonly seen receptive-expressive gap in young bilingual children (e.g. Gibson, et al., 2012).

9. The quality and quantity of bilingual children’s input in each language influences their rate of language development in each language

  • Children develop language more rapidly in the language they hear more (e.g. Hoff et al., 2012).
  • As children’s relative levels of exposure change, language skill levels change as well. For example, young children who start going to a high quality English-speaking childcare centre, tend to improve their English skills, although the quality of the input is just as, if not more, important than the quantity (e.g. Grüter et al., 2014).
  • In theory, the use of a varied vocabulary, complex and varied syntax and child-centred speech in a language should be positive predictors of a child’s growth in that language. Evidence suggests that exposure to a language in interactive book-reading with fluent speakers supports language growth, but passively watching TV in a language isn’t as helpful (e.g. Rowe et al., 2012; and Patterson et al., 2004).
  • Hearing a language from several different speakers is more supportive of language development than the same number of hours of language exposure from a few speakers (Place et al., 2011), though we’re not sure why.
  • Interestingly, even in families where the parents are fluent in English, there is evidence that when parents talk with their child in their native language, they use a more diverse vocabulary than when they talk to their children in their second language (Hof et al., 2013).
  • Exposure to English outside of the home through friends and organised activities and also through media is a significant predictor of language growth in English (Pardis, 2011).

Bottom line

Giving bilingual parents practical advice about their child’s language development is difficult. Parents face real challenges for which there are often no easy solutions.

Acquisition of a heritage language is a legitimate goal and has many benefits for the child, the family and society as a whole. Acquisition of strong English skills by school entry is also an important goal, which is hard to attain if the parents don’t speak fluent English themselves.

In countries like Australia, where English is the dominant language, we know that poor English skills at school entry places a child at increased risk for school failure (e.g. Han, 2012). The weight of data to date suggests that young bilingual children who will attend an English-speaking school in the future should:

  • speak with their parents in a language or languages in which their parents are fluent (rather than broken English); and
  • if possible, be exposed to English outside the home, preferably spoken fluently by native speakers, in the toddler and pre-school years.

An optimal environment for English language development is exposure-rich, grammatically varied English of the sort spoken by educated, native English speakers. As a society, we are a long way from being able to offer this to bilingual children from all cultural and economic backgrounds. But that’s what we should shoot for. Interactive technology may make this easier to achieve. But nothing is as good as face-to-face human interaction which, after all, is the basis of language development.

Related articles:

Principal source: Hoff, E., & Core, C. (2015). What Clinicians Need to Know about Bilingual Development.  Seminars in Speech and Language, 36(2), 89-99.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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