Episode 05 – The Bilingual Child Part 1

This is part 1 of a 2-part series on our topic The Bilingual Child.

Today we will give you an introduction and the foundation knowledge to what bilingual language development looks like and give you the confidence to understand what are some characteristics we see when we have a child who has a different language spoken at home.

Over the years, multilingual families has increased quite progressively. Collectively Australians speak over 300 languages. In Sydney South, we have 30.5% born overseas and a large portion is born in China. Other common languages spoken aside from English are: Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, and Greek.

It is important for parents and carers of children coming from homes speaking a different language to have an understanding of what bilingualism development looks like.

Why I discuss bilingual development as a speech pathologist

For myself, personally, Italian was my first language and I was only immersed in English once I started school. I used Italian when I talked to my parents and relatives, while I used English with my siblings.

Having another language is such an amazing gift for me now as an adult and it’s something I encourage parents to continue to develop if they speak a different language at home.

Why do I speak about bilingualism as a speech pathologist? The reason is I’ve seen so many children with speech delay that have not been diagnosed earlier because parents attribute it to having a second language at home. 

So I wanted to raise awareness about what the typical stages are for language development so that if there are concerns, you can refer the child sooner rather than later.

2 Key Components of Language

  1. Receptive language – an ability to understand language, to follow directions, to understand different questions and sentences.
  2. Expressive language – an ability to use language, speaking, making sentences, answering questions, using grammar and being able to retell stories.

So when we are looking at milestones, we are looking at both receptive and expressive language milestones.

For a bilingual child, you are gonna use these milestones based on what language the child is predominantly using.

Receptive language milestones

  • At birth – as soon as babies are aware of their environmental sounds
  • 6-9 months of age – they start to understand their own name, understand greeting actions like hello and goodbye, understand questions like “where’s mum?”
  • 10-12 months of age – understand familiar objects and begins to respond to simple requests
  • 1-2 years of age – able to understand more simple directions, enjoy stories and nursery rhymes
  • 2-3 years of age – understand functions of objects and 2-step directions
  • 3-4 years of age – understand WH questions (who, what, when) and you can have a conversation with them too
  • 4-5 years of age – understand more complex WH questions like “why?” or “what will happen next” and nearly everything that’s said to them is understood.

Expressive language milestones

  • At birth – sounds are made by a newborn to express pleasure or pain
  • 4-6 months – increasing sounds they are making like babbling
  • 7-12 – the babbling gets longer and starting to put longer sounds together like “mama” and intonation is used too
  • 12 months – first words are spoken. For example, if Spanish is spoken at home, the child’s first words are in Spanish.
  • 12-18 months – more and more words are being expressed including gestures, facial expression and using single words like mommy, drink, more. Starting to imitate new words and sounds.
  • 18-24 months – words start to get a little bit clearer, ask questions like “where’s mommy?”, the typically speak 25-50 words and start to put 2 words together.
  • 2-3 years – vocabulary starts to expand up to 200 words and sentences are getting longer up to 3 word sentences.
  • 3-4 years – lots of new experiences, they have a lot to talk about, starting to combine words into 4 words or more, grammar is more correct, people are able to understand your child, their speech is more clear and fluent.
  • 4-5 years – sentences are longer, they tell stories, right topic focus, retell what they’ve done for the day in the right order of events. 

No matter what the language is at home, these milestones should serve as your guide. If the language is not progressing, you might want to consider to getting professional advice.

Patterns of bilingual development

  1. Simultaneous – 2 languages are acquired at the same time before the age of 3. When you have high exposure to both languages and high opportunity to use both languages, then you have simultaneous bilingualism, where both languages are developing at the same time.
  2. Sequential – The 2nd language is learned after the first language from the age of 3. If your child has a high opportunity to use both languages, then they have rapid sequential bilingualism occurring. 
  3. Receptive – A child is exposed to a 2nd language but has little opportunity to practice it. They understand it, but because they are not practicing it, they don’t speak it. If you got high exposure to both languages but low opportunity to use the 2nd language, this results in receptive bilingualism.

Typical characteristics of bilingual language development

  1. Language interference – the first language might influence the 2nd language development in terms of grammar or word syntax.
  2. Code-switching – changing or switching languages within the same sentence or conversation.
  3. Silent period – a child become silent during initial exposure to the 2nd language ( should not be more than 12 months).
  4. Language loss – happens when fluency in the first language might decrease if not practiced or maintained.

In the next episode, which is part 2 of The Bilingual Child series, we will talk about how you can help your child maintain more than one language. Please do watch out for that.

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Any information and links presented within the Chatabout Children™ with Sonia Bestulic podcast are aimed to provide general information and advice only.
Information is to be used at the discretion of the consumer/ listener. The information presented does not replace or substitute the expert advice received from a direct consultation with the relevant qualified professional.


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Award Winning Book: FLOURISH FOR MUMS by Sonia Bestulic