Following on my post from last week, how are parents to know what is natural language development, and what might be a language delay?
The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. Differentiating between types of language issues can be tricky, even for professionals. The one thing we do know is that raising children with more than one language does *not* cause a language delay. It’s often quoted that bilingual children start talking later than monolingual children, and some research has indicated that this might be true. What is important to note though is that even if bilingual children do start talking “later” than monolingual peers, they still fall into the normal range of language acquisition for children of their age. So, late does not always equal delayed – it just means below the norm. Parents who are concerned, or who want to track language development, can access resources that will help them graph what is “normal” in their home language(s), and can keep an eye on their children’s progress compared to the development standards.
However, not all research is conclusive in indicating a relationship between language development and number of languages spoken. As anecdotal non-evidence, my three children have had either two (oldest daughter) or three (younger son and daughter) languages from birth, and all have been early or on-time speakers. Each child, and each family situation is different, and the possibility of slightly later speech shouldn’t deter anyone from making the choice for bilingualism.
Finally, what are parents to do if they are concerned about their bilingual child’s language development? My professional advice is always get an evaluation, as soon as possible. The key is to not get any evaluation, but to get the *right* evaluation. Ideally, bilingual children should be evaluated by a speech therapist who is bilingual in the same languages. That is, of course, rarely an option, so the second best option is to find a speech therapist who can evaluate them in their strongest language, and who is sympathetic to bilingualism. A standard speech evaluation is based on mono-lingual norms, and isn’t appropriate for a bilingual child, so you need someone who understands that and will work with you to have as accurate a picture as possible.
The benefit of an evaluation is that you will have the information you need to provide the best environment for your bilingual child, whether they have a delay or not. If the child does have a delay, early intervention is ideal, and the family should continue to maintain both languages – removing one language will not “fix” the problem, and could make it worse.