Many parents in bilingual homes worry that exposing their children to multiple languages from birth will slow or hurt their children’s ability to speak.
Fortunately, research shows that learning to speak two languages will not cause long-term speech or language problems in children. There are lots of benefits to learning more than one language, especially when it helps kids communicate better with family members.
Children who are bilingual typically meet developmental milestones at the same time as those who speak only one language. That means speaking their first words by their first birthday and combining words into two-word phrases by age two. A child who is not meeting developmental milestones should be monitored closely, regardless of the number of languages being learned at once.
However, being bilingual can change some aspects of the way children learn to speak. It is common for kids who are bilingual to “code-switch,” or alternate between the two languages in their use of vocabulary and sentence structure. Code-switching does not mean that children are confusing the two languages; rather it is a sign that they are developing competence in both languages. It is also common for kids to go through a silent phase when a new language is introduced. This silent period is not permanent and should go away, usually after several months. It can take time for children to become proficient in both languages.
What’s most important is to speak to your child in the language with which you’re most comfortable. When you talk to your child, you’re not only teaching vocabulary, but also the structure of the language. How sentences are formed, including where the nouns and verbs and adjectives go in a sentence, is a key part of language learning.
Research shows that children need to be exposed to high-quality communication in at least one language in order to learn. When it comes to communicating in any language, you are your child’s first and most important teacher.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2019
- Learning to speak two languages will not cause long-term speech or language problems in children.
- Code-switching is common, where children alternate between the two languages.
- Don’t be alarmed if your child goes through a silent phase when a new language is introduced.