Making Clinical Decisions About Young Bilingual Children

I’m often asked my opinion whether or not young bilingual children have language delays or impairment. How can we tell impairment and normal bilingualism apart. And what about language use for these kids? Should parents use more than one language– especially if they have language delays or language impairment?

So, how do we know if young children have a language impairment? For monolinguals we know about developmental milestones in language acquisition. And we know that milestones (in terms of total number of different words for example) are similar in bilinguals. We also know that there is a lot of variability in individual children. So, what are the worrisome benchmarks?

By 1 and 1/2 years of age (18-20 months)– children should use AT LEAST 10 words. In bilinguals, I would be looking for 10 words combined across the two languages. By about 2 to 2 1/2, children should know at least 50 words (again, count across the two languages) and should be starting to combine morphemes. In English, this usually means combining words. For children who speak other languages it depends on the structure of the language. For example, an early combination in Spanish might be “dame” (“give me”) which counts as two morphemes (or two small bits of information) but not two words necessarily.

Now, realize that even these children who are considered “late talkers” may not end up with language impairment. About 50% of them do– and the other 50% of them don’t. Another thing to look for is comprehension. Do children seem to understand a lot of what they hear? Do they understand names for different things in their environment? Also, think about whether the child is able to make him- or herself understood through use of gestures or signs? Children with limited expressive vocabulary but with good comprehension and gestures are the ones are likely to catch up.

If you are concerned however, early intervention can help. Work with a speech-language pathologist who can provide early intervention and strategies that can be done at home to support language learning.  I don’t always think that waiting is the answer. Often with bilingual children waiting is a default suggestion. I don’t agree. If all the signs of a delay are there then waiting may only make the gap bigger. At the same time, we want to make sure that we are crediting children for everything that they do know. This is where counting vocabulary knowledge (both comprehension and expression) across BOTH languages is critical.

In terms of use of both languages? Yes, children with delays can handle both languages. Bilingual input does not cause language delay or impairment.

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