Recommendations for Working with Bilingual Toddlers with Language Delay
Last Friday on the podcast I hosted a fantastic guest, speech-language pathologist Becky Green. Her specialty is working with bilingual toddlers with language delay. The information she shared included this TAKE AWAY message:
Learning two languages does not contribute to a child’s language delay.
In other words, this research confirmed that growing up in a bilingual home DOES NOT make a child’s language delay worse. Actually, experts now believe that simultaneous exposure to both languages may be beneficial rather than harmful (Pena 2016). An additional study Becky cited confirmed that preschoolers with language delays due to autism and Down syndrome speak two languages just as well as their peers with autism or Down syndrome who only speak one language.
Based on results of studies in the last few years, researchers have realized that some advice we offered parents of bilingual toddlers with language delay is now outdated. SLPs should steer clear of making these recommendations:
Stick to one language.
In the past we recommended that parents pick one language and use that language exclusively when talking with their child with a language delay. The rationale was to SIMPLIFY the language a child hears since there’s a problem with how the child understands, processes, and speaks. While that advice was certainly well-intentioned, research does not support that exposure to only one language will eliminate or reduce language delay. Actually, this confirms what we’ve known for a long time – a language delay in one language means a language delay in other languages too. We need to make sure we tell parents that being bilingual did not “cause” the delay.
We advised parents to translate most of what they talked about with a child in both languages the child is learning. For example, a parent may have said, “La casa es grande! The house is big!” This practice is no longer recommended. Studies say that the child’s little brain is busy detecting differences between the languages, rather than absorbing (and truly understanding!) the words she’s hearing. The better advice is to talk about what you are doing, even using both languages, but without translating back and forth. That’s good news! Simultaneous translation was incredibly frustrating for many families I’ve worked with – and me too!! It seemed to interrupt the natural flow of conversation. That’s a communication-killer.
In case you’re an SLP or another therapist and feeling guilty because you’ve made these recommendations to families, maybe even yesterday, stop! Don’t beat yourself up. Now that you know what is current and evidence-based, pivot. Adjust your advice. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve made these mistakes too. And now I won’t 🙂
Other great reminders we discussed on the show:
A red flag is a red flag is a red flag… no matter how many languages you speak!
Things like limited eye contact and difficulty interacting with others is NOT due to learning more than one language. Significant delays must NOT be attributed to learning more than one language. Becky gave an example of an SLP who said that it was normal for a 3 year old living in a bilingual home to use only 15 words.
Milestones are actually consistent across languages. A two year old who speaks English or Spanish or French, or even all 3 languages, should be talking in short, two-word phrases by age 2!
In light of that information, let’s revisit the previous example Becky mentioned for the 3 year old with only 15 words. There’s much, much more going on with that child than hearing more than one language at home! Although we used to believe that mild expressive delays were the norm for children learning more than one language, this is not supported by current findings.
Real life is better for teaching language than ANY OTHER ACTIVITY.
I talk about this everyday and I’ll continue in this post! Kids learn how to talk from PEOPLE, not toys, or a TV show, or an app. On the show Becky cited a study that confirmed that babies watching Chinese speakers on a video did NOT learn the subtleties of language that babies did who were face-to-face with Chinese speakers.
So….screen time, even an educational show or game, is NEVER a substitute for one-on-one time with a FUN adult!
Help a child learn to understand and use language by talking as you play, do household chores, run errands, or just hang out together. The very best way to teach language by using language all day, every day!
What else can parents do to support a bilingual child with a language delay?
Continue to follow strategies recommended by your SLP anytime you’re talking with a child who has a language delay. These include:
- Simplification. Talk in short sentences rather than paragraphs! Emphasize key words.
- Repetition. Repeating what you say is a powerful way to help young children understand your words.
- Allowing extra time for processing. Slow down and pause to allow a young child time to keep up!
- Using a child’s interests. Everybody likes to talk about (and do!) what they like!
For more discussion, listen to this episode of podcast yourself on iTunes or at this link.
Becky has launched a new website with great resources for working with bilingual families. It’s called Greenspeechtherapy.com and you’ll find references and helpful articles geared toward both SLPs and parents.
For more guidance for working with a child with language delays, check out these resources:
When parents email me and ask, “Where do I begin?” this is ALWAYS what I recommend. This best-selling classic was my first DVD. It explains the basic beginning strategies appropriate for any toddler or preschooler who is not yet talking. You’ll see therapy clips with young children ranging from 9 months old to 3 years old. Six of the easiest and most successful ways to elicit first word attempts are highlighted during play-based activities.
Because this DVD is an excellent training tool for both families and professionals, many therapy practices require that new families view this DVD between the evaluation and first therapy session. After watching, parents understand what therapy looks like and are equipped to target language at home. Therapists also use clips from this DVD to introduce a strategy by watching together with parents during a session and then implementing the strategy with the child.
University graduate programs and practicum sites throughout the USA use this DVD during clinical training for speech-language pathologists and early childhood education majors. This DVD is also helpful for clinicians who may be new to early intervention and working with toddlers and their families – not only because of the “how to” therapy examples, but also for providing a “family-friendly script” to use in discussions with parents.
Parents email me every day to tell me how this DVD turned things around for their families because it taught them HOW to interact with their child in a way to facilitate language. (Regular price is $39.99) Click here to order Teach Me To Talk the DVD.
This DVD discusses receptive language delays or language comprehension deficits in toddlers. In the DVD you’ll see strategies for teaching toddlers to understand what words mean and to follow simple directions using an easy to understand cueing system. This DVD is most appropriate for parents and professionals working with toddlers who are functioning below the 24 month developmental level and older preschoolers with significant receptive language delays. (Regular price – $29.99) Click here to order this DVD.
This DVD discusses receptive language delays or language comprehension deficits in very young children. You’ll see how to teach toddlers to understand more complex words such as verbs, prepositions, and descriptive words and to follow more complicated two-step directions. This DVD is most appropriate for parents and professionals working with toddlers who are functioning at and above the 24 month developmental level up to the 3 1/2 to 4 year old developmental level.
As a bonus, this DVD includes a special section on disciplinary strategies appropriate for toddlers with language delays. It’s critical that we consider a child’s developmental age in determining behavioral expectations. Many parents tell me that their child did not make progress with expressive language (how they talked) until they implemented the receptive language strategies they learned from this DVD at home. (Regular price is $39.99) Click here to order this DVD. Order BOTH Receptive Language DVDs and SAVE! The Set price is $54.99 for Teach Me To Listen and Obey 1 & 2. Click here to order the set.
This 2 DVD set and discusses both motor and linguistic-based problems related to expressive communication disorders. There’s a section on the diagnostic characteristics for both apraxia and phonological disorders. Examples of oral groping and other speech characteristics of apraxia are shown and discussed. Beginning therapy strategies are modeled with a variety of children between 2 and 4 years old.
This DVD is by nature more technical than my other DVDs, but it is still appropriate for both parents and professionals. Sections are organized in sequential steps with easy-to-follow instructions to address first words and beginning speech intelligibility strategies both in sessions and at home. (Regular price is $69.99 for the set.) Click here to order this DVD.
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