Communication is a human right, in any and all languages. Children of all backgrounds start communicating from birth, though this communication looks and sounds different as they grow and learn. Early on, children communicate with their cries, sounds, eyes, facial expressions, and movements. As they mature and interact with responsive caregivers and their environment, children build upon these behaviors to use gestures and meaningful, intelligible words to communicate. Whether learning one or multiple languages, children are uniquely equipped to acquire and expand upon the language/s they are exposed to and practice.
We use language for many purposes, such as requesting items or people we need, sharing our ideas, and fostering social connections. It is embedded into listening, speaking, understanding, reading, and writing. Learning and using multiple languages offers many personal, social, and societal benefits, such as supporting additional language learning and communication skills, developing stronger social and familial bonds, and improving problem-solving skills. The benefits of multilingualism should be emphasized, as many families (and even some professionals) falsely believe that learning more than one language can confuse a child or contribute to a language disorder. This is not true.
Families and caregivers should be encouraged to use the language/s they are most comfortable using with their children.
Rich language models and interactions are critically important—they help children learn new words, produce sounds, use sentences, tell stories, and socialize. Exposure to more words and conversations, no matter the language, can ultimately help children succeed in school. Building strong oral and/or manual communication skills forms the foundation for literacy development and academic success.
Language Development in Multilingual Children
Children learn at their own pace, and therefore, some meet communication milestones earlier or later than others. Though the sequence and age ranges for these communicative behaviors may vary slightly from expectations of monolingual children, multilingual children develop language skills progressively, just as monolingual children do.2 When children do not meet developmental milestones that are typically displayed by children of the same age and learning the same language, families may be concerned.
Here are some areas to consider more closely when there are communication concerns in multilingual children:
- Understanding language. Children typically understand before they produce words and phrases—they may point to objects when named or follow simple directions. When a child demonstrates strong receptive language skills, they are more likely to catch up. If there are concerns about comprehension across and/or among languages, the child may have a language delay.
- Using gestures. Children often use gestures to communicate, even before they can produce words. Common gestures may include pointing, waving “hi” or “bye,” and putting their arms up to be lifted. The more gestures children use, the more likely it is that they will catch up to other children their age. Children may have language difficulties if they do not use many gestures despite consistent exposure. For both monolingual and multilingual children, if there is a prolonged reliance on gestures over speech, there may be cause for concern.
- Learning new words. Although some children may be slower to talk, most children, no matter their language/s, will typically produce first words by the first year. Afterward, they should be using new words more frequently, with an average of four to six words by 15 months and 20 or more words by 18 months. Then, they start putting words together or using words to ask questions. Following this trajectory in expressive vocabulary, a delay is unlikely. However, there may be a language problem if they do not use new words often.
Most pediatric professionals know that parents are the best sources for reporting on how a child communicates. Therefore, in collaboration with parents and families, childcare providers, teachers, physicians, and related service providers will want to be vigilant at identifying the signs of language difficulties when working with young children.
Signs of Language Disorders
When a child is using their language/s in ways that are intelligible and comparable to same-aged peers with similar linguistic backgrounds, there is likely no disorder. Keep in mind though, that a child with a true language disorder may have trouble with one or more of these skills, regardless of the language/s they are exposed to:
- Does not smile or interact with others (birth and older)
- Does not babble (four to six months)
- Makes only a few sounds or gestures, like reaching (nine to twelve months)
- Does not understand what others say (ten months to two years)
- Says only a few words (19 months to two years)
- Does not put words together to make sentences (19 months to three years)
- Speaks using words that are not easily understood by others (three to four years)
Some children do have speech or language difficulties, and when they do, these difficulties impact all languages. If ever there are concerns about a child’s communication development, there is help available, and often, it’s free or low cost through early intervention programs.
SLPs Can Help
Speech–language pathologists, or SLPs, help children who have language, speech sound, fluency, or voice problems. If a child exhibits one or more of the signs above, seek the support of an SLP.
Working collaboratively with families, monolingual or multilingual SLPs can investigate communication concerns, provide suggestions to support language growth, and partner with interpreters/cultural brokers so a child’s language/s are promoted and supported in service delivery.
Search the national provider database of the American Speech–Language–Hearing Association (ASHA), ASHA ProFind, for a certified and licensed SLP by specialty, language/s, and location.3 SLPs can provide speech–language assessment and intervention and/or refer children and their families for additional support, such as early intervention programs.
Above all else, multilingualism does not cause speech–language disorders. Families will not confuse their children, cause or worsen speech or language problems, or slow down children’s learning by using their language/s.
Children, with and without disabilities, growing up in monolingual and multilingual environments, can learn multiple languages with strong models and opportunities for practice.
Becoming an effective communicator is a human superpower, and multilingualism is a secret weapon that supports additional language learning and communication skills, develops stronger social and familial bonds, improves problem-solving skills, and increases earning potential for children and adults.
Other ASHA Resources:
“Late Blooming or Language Problem?,” www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/late-blooming-or-language-problem
“Early Identification of Speech, Language, Swallowing, and Hearing Disorders,”
Andrea N. Pluskota, CCC-SLP, is an associate director of multicultural practices, Office of Multicultural Affairs, for the American Speech–Language–Hearing Association (ASHA).