Bilingualism and Language Delay


At our practice we get many questions on bilingualism in the home. In our South African context children are growing up exposed to many different languages. The big question that gets asked is: Did this cause my child’s language delay?

The clinical question is then translated to “How do I best advise this family to promote language learning?”

So as a team we dug into the issue a bit more and this is what we have come up with. This blog is meant as a continuing discussion on topics so I encourage any and all input on the matter from colleagues and parents alike.


The bottom line: Bilingualism in itself does not cause a language delay.


So often when I get a new query from a parent one of the first things they state is that “we are Afrikaans but she goes to an English school” or “his dad is Afrikaans and I’m English and his nanny is Xhosa”. I love the phrase “children develop language despite what we do”.  Literature is showing that if there is already a bilingual environment then we shouldn’t discourage that. Children who grow up in bilingual homes and have a language delay tend to show the same patterns of errors in both languages. They should also follow typical developmental patterns in both languages. If there is a language delay there may be another underlying cause and this needs exploration by a speech therapist. Another concern parents raise it the mixing of languages. This is also a natural process whether there is a language delay or not.


It is also possible for children with a known language impairment to learn two languages, within the limits of their impairment.  If a child has a language impairment and is monolingual this is likely to make the learning of a second language at a later stage more difficult than it may otherwise be. A big consideration for our recommendations is what kind of school the child should go to and I feel that given the readings and what research is suggesting that this should not be an issue. The child should receive the support necessary to help him out despite which school he is sent to (i.e. one that is monolingual or one that is bilingual). We should continue working to give them a firm base in their home language as well as supporting their learning of the second language. .


This also makes sense when I think about the recommendation to implement sign language with our language delayed population. I use baby-sign all the time in my therapy. Is this not introducing a second language?


Some tips then for working with Bilingual families and for families themselves:

  1. It is important to provide the children with good models of language use in both languages (use appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure). If we can ensure that they have a language rich environment they will have better success. The usual language stimulation techniques apply here, such as commenting on what they are doing; expanding on their utterances; and use of repetition!

You can find some great tips at

  1. Continue using both languages at home: limit use of ‘baby talk’ but also try speak at the child’s level. You want your language to be simple enough so that the child can imitate you but you don’t want to over-simplify either.
  2. It is not necessary to ‘translate’ everything you say into the other language – this is too much for them to process and the child focuses on making links between words in the different language rather than learning the meaning behind the words used.
  3. It is advised to focus on the Language of Learning and Teaching in therapy, but there is nothing stating that they have to stick to only one language at home.
  4. It is also important to consider the cultural implications of limiting a child’s exposure to their parents’ languages. Language identity and cultural identity go hand-in-hand and many parents agonise over the loss of this identity in their children.




References and Resources:

Here are some very helpful links to more information on the topic:

  3. Bilingual Children and Communication Disorders: A 30-year Research Retrospective; Kathryn Kohnert and Amelia Madina; 2010

  1. Bilingual Children with Primary Language Impairment: Issues,

Evidence and Implications for Clinical Actions; Kathryn Kohnert: J Commun Disord. 2010; 43(6): 456–473. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2010.02.002.












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