Language Development and Bilingualism

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One of the many questions a parent may ask themselves when trying to raise a bilingual child is: ‘will my child be at a disadvantage?’ ‘Will his understanding be delayed?’ ‘Will she be able to advance at the same pace because of having to learn two languages or more?’ The answer to all of these is a categorical no according to current research. Being bilingual is beneficial in many areas of life, especially in the early years. But there is also the reality that a small percentage of children the world over have language development issues for a variety of reasons.

Little Girl has a lisp, in that she can’t pronounce the ‘ch’ sound at all. ‘Elle zozote’, as we say in French. It’s cute but I have been aware of it for a while as a potential ‘thing’ to look out for. She is only three years old so it hasn’t been on my urgent to-do list but I have noticed it, especially around her peers who don’t seem to have the same problem. Until recently, I didn’t know if it was an issue or not, and I had no real way to figure it out on the sly. When can you start talking about language delays anyway? Is there really no correlation between language development delays and bilingualism? These are real questions and it’s not that easy to see the wood for the trees when you are in the thick of it. Information isn’t exactly readily available unless you notice a problem yourself and take it to a specialist. As a parent with a basic understanding of biology and an even better knowledge of how to use Google, I didn’t want to blow it out of proportion but I didn’t know where to turn either to get some basic information without committing a crime against my brain by going on Wikipedia.

Then about a month ago I got an email from our local family centre advertising a Speech and Language Therapy drop-in clinic and I jumped at the chance to get it checked-out.

The observation was very laid back; Little Girl was presented with pictures of objects and animals and asked to describe them before putting the cards in a big red post box. The therapist went through a lot of words, most of which Little Girl knew (phew) and I was even more gratified when she saw a picture of a frog and said ‘grenouille’ (‘she can’t put a French sentence together but she does know some words!’). At the same time I was gradually getting twitchy watching the therapist write something down next to 90% of the words. I had never noticed before but Little Girl pronounced almost all of them a little bit wrong. It was mostly bog standard stuff like poon for spoon, tair for stair, wabbit for rabbit, bruss for brush and soo for shoe. And all the ‘th’ sounds, which are typically English and even I don’t know if I say them right all the time, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her mangle them a bit. Still, seeing this on the page was concerning.

It turns out that her development is completely normal and appropriate for her age, including all the ‘sh’ and ‘th’ stuff. And the therapist was very positive about the fact that we were trying to raise her with both French and English; she had no concerns at all. She did say that considering the pool of words and sounds she has to learn, a little delay was possible but nothing to worry about.

What I didn’t know, and I suspect most parents don’t either, is that a lot of pronunciation doesn’t settle until a child is five or even six years old! Not only was all of this information completely new to me, but it also felt like something I should be aware of without needing to go to a special clinic because I am worried. This sheet below is the most helpful thing I’ve seen all year.

Normal language development 0 - 6 yrs old

Normal language development 0 – 6 yrs old

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12 thoughts on “Language Development and Bilingualism

  1. Cazzou says:

    This is super interesting, thanks so much for sharing – I’ve saved the document to dig back out if I ever start worrying about my sons’ speech!
    I think you should always trust 100% that you are giving your daughters an invaluable gift by raising them bilingual. You’re clearly doing a fab job!

  2. Very interesting subject. Each child is different, so it’s very hard to pinpoint if a delay is due to having two languages, or is it’s just a sound formation problem or if there’s something more serious underlying…I was always told it would take more time for my children to speak because they were bilingual, and the doctors here were very helpful. None of them told me to give up speaking French for example. My eldest was diagnosed with autism so in the end, his speech problems were mainly due to his disability, not bilingualism, We stopped speaking French to him, but only because he wasn’t speaking anything at all… I decided to speak French to my youngest in spite of his brother’s issues, because I still wanted to give him a chance, and as it happens, he’s completely fine, and speaks both French and English (and most of the time in the same sentence!) The most important thing is to trust your instinct, and if you worry about something, it’s probably worth checking. We are the ones who know our children best after all.

    • Indeed. It’s a tough thing when you discover there is something actually wrong. I was very glad to have checked it out only to be informed everything was fine. I do wish Little Girl could string a French sentence together but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be on the cards for a while!

  3. Louise Kiteley says:

    Thank you Pauline for this information! My daughter is approximately the same age as yours and we too are raising her bilingual (we’re English and live in France!). I have been worried about her speech even though I have been expecting a little delay but your post and information sheet have definitely put my mind at ease! Thank you so much sharing!

  4. There are countless French supremacists (Jacobins 🙂 ) who have told me it is a GOOD thing that modern children in Alsace and Brittany are monolingual Franco-French because otherwise the “unity” of our Grande Nation would have been gravely threatened.

    As a consequence I passionately hate the French republic and never want to live there again.
    I feel as disgusted by France as a former fundamentalist might feel towards Christianity.

    • Some people are terribly blinkered about what constitutes ‘unity’. I can understand how as a linguistic minority in France, you would feel this way. I have my own issues with the country even as I am homesick for other things; it was a breath of fresh air to move to the UK.
      For all the concerns British people have about the direction the country is taking, there is a flexibility here in the UK that French people can only dream of, only they are happy to live in their Francophone bubble.

  5. We are bringing our two daughters up bilingually (and biculturally) first of all in France and now in the UK. Our eldest is now nearly 8 and is 100% bilingual despite barely speaking until she was 2 and 3/4 (when she started maternelle in France). She has an excellent vocabulary in both languages and reads Harry Potter in English as well as books for her age in French. I was told by so many monolingual parents when L was younger that she obviously had a speech problem, due to her starting to speak so late, yet she is the world’s biggest chatterbox now and beats most of her peers in terms of vocabulary in both languages. Fortunately we had a great paediatrician in France, who was used to bilingual families who told me that as long as she understood us and was trying to say some words not to worry. Our youngest, C, is now 2 and says about 10-15 words in both languages and with the experience of L under our belts I am not in the least bit worried about her language. So to anyone thinking of raising their children bilingually all I can say is DO IT!
    (Sorry for the essay!)

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