Language Delay In Bilingual Children

Is There A Delay?

Today I’m going to discuss a very important issue, that is, language delay in bilingual children. I have a son with autism and his father’s native language is Spanish. As I have mentioned in many posts, I learned to speak Spanish from the age of fifteen. To hear more about my story in learning Spanish, click here.

My son, Paulino Israel (Nito)

How do you know if a child has a language delay or if he is developmentally delayed, and, how do you address the issue of raising a developmentally delayed child when your family is bilingüal?

My son, Paulino, also known as Nito, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Just as when you have a new child, when you have a child who is newly diagnosed with something like autism, you are hit with a ton of advice from people who presume that they are experts in the subject. (Some of them may have some expertise, while others may give advice that could be harmful if followed.)

The advice I was given by his first speech therapists was to avoid teaching my son Spanish. His ability to grasp English itself has seemed extremely limited, so taking on another language, as they said, would confuse him.

The sad thing is, my son was actually quite vocal for a child who is considered nonverbal. Before I received this advice, my son would stay stuff like “bread…pan,” “cheese…queso” all the time because he heard these words in the bilingual story books I read to him. The problem he was having is that he was not picking up on conversational speech, he was only echoing words robotically.

Withdrawing Spanish from the equation seemed to prove harmful. My son had more fascination with language when everything had two names instead of one. Years later though, we had our second child, my daughter, Cinthianne. I was so desperate to have a child who could speak at least one language, that all I focused on was English at first. Their father was also very anxious since we had a child with a significant speech delay.

My daughter, Cinthianne

One day, a relative from her father’s family came to visit and she observed that my daughter did not understand her. She immediately got on my case. She felt that both of my kids should be learning Spanish. Ever since my conversation with her, I became fascinated at the idea of my daughter speaking two languages, so that became the beginning of a new journey for me.

It was then that I began to discover all the books that I now recommend on this site, whether children’s books or Spanish learning books. I had to improve my own Spanish to teach her because her father would not teach her Spanish despite it being his native language. During that time, I seriously began to ponder and question the advice I had been given for my son, and so I made the decision to start speaking to him in Spanish again.

This obviously led me on the path to where I am today, with my own blog entitled Bilingual StoryTime:

Within a month at the most, my son was able to follow the same directions in Spanish, basically any directions he was able to understand and follow in English. It proved beneficial to him because it expanded his overall understanding of language.

So, the question is, should you teach a child two languages if he is language delayed? And, how do you know whether a child is language delayed or if he is having a hard time in school because he speaks a different language at home? We will address the second question a bit later in this post but let’s start with question number one.

I believe that a child who is language delayed benefits greatly from learning a new language, and research is significantly in favor of encouraging all children to be bilingüal, whether language delayed or not. My experience with my son taught me that there is really no confusion to it at all. If a nonverbal child with autism can pick up on two languages and understand them without any confusion, how much more can encouraging two or more languages be beneficial to children who are developmentally ahead of my son?

How can you encourage your children to be bilingüal? Read your children books that are either written with translations, or that you translate yourself. If you would like to show your child books in English and Spanish, visit my YouTube Channel entitled Bilingual Story Time, where children can hear Spanish and English stories read aloud. Take a look at my post that lists all kinds of resources to teach English and Spanish. These resources are free in some cases, but if not that, very affordable.

Here is a Spanish story from one of the best Spanish children books, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss, Un Pez, Dos Peces, Pez Rojo, Pez Azul:

Here is a bilingual video, Dora’s Chilly Day:

The second question, how do you know if a child genuinely has a delay, or if he is frustrated due to language differences between home and school? I won’t deny this issue.

There are indeed children who may engage in behavior that could indicate frustration due to the fact that English is spoken at school, and the child is struggling with his own language of origin at home. The child’s misbehavior may seem spiteful and difficult, but the child is genuinely struggling and unless the true problem is addressed, he will continue to behave in ways that can be harmful to himself and others.

The key here is that children with true, organic delays like autism may not respond to any language well at all. They may appear to be in their own world all the time. Now, these factors can be present in a child who does not have autism for a temporary period of time.

So, the other thing you want to look at is how the child plays. My daughter did not enjoy being around children much when she was little, and since her brother has autism, people naturally assumed that she did as well because of the fact that she did not play with other children.

However, my daughter always engaged in pretend play. Pretend play is a huge concept that children with autism do not grasp as well and they will have limited ability in this area.

What do you do if you suspect an organic delay but there are language differences too?

The child should still be encouraged to learn both his native language and English. Sorry, but this is simply what the research indicates! There is no reason whatsoever that a child with a delay cannot learn two languages! It will only prove to be beneficial for the child in terms of his social and emotional development.

Why? You want the child to be able to communicate with his family, because some of his family may not be proficient enough in English. In addition, your child’s brain will benefit from the exposure to two languages instead of one.

But what if the child misbehaves due to frustration?

This is where communication with your child’s teacher is extremely crucial. Have your child’s teacher explain to other children in his class that your child speaks two languages. You could even ask the teacher to learn some words in the child’s language and teach them to his class.

You should also ask his teacher to speak slowly and to have the other children in class speak more slowly, point, use gestures and explain things to the child well. Being mindful of the challenges the child is facing will teach the child that his situation is understood and that will help him to feel more secure. This security will help him to feel like he does not have to misbehave.

In conclusion, I believe that all children should learn two languages. If a young child is having a hard time due to language factors, simply slowing down the communication and explaining the situation to everyone involved with the child should help. That way, everyone can work toward communicating with the child in a way that promotes the child’s self esteem and motivation for learning.

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3 Comment

  1. Audrey L. K. says: Reply

    Thank you for writing this incredibly helpful article! I wonder why people are still giving that advice to speak to a child in only one language when they are young? I guess I can see how they think it will confuse the child, but clearly that’s not the case. My nephew is under 10 years old and can speak 3 languages because his parents spoke all 3 languages in the home. He was delayed in speaking any language even by age 2.5, so everyone was concerned. Then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he was talking non-stop! I’m glad to hear that your son is picking up Spanish so quickly. Children are amazing!

  2. Thanks for writing this very interesting post. I agree that any child will benefit by a chance to learn a new language. I stay in Asia and where we are as a nation we always talk about bilingualism of English and Mandarin and its quite a common practice that parents deliberate have one of them speak one and the other speak the second one to their kids. And results has proven to us that kids do absorb both and is able to differentiate what is what as long as we are consistent in exposing them with that two language by two different people. Thanks for sharing this and also your family’s journey. The books look good but for our relevance in Asian, does these books come in Mandarin?

    1. I have not seen these books in particular available in Mandarin but there should be other titles that are. Click on the books and look up Chinese children books

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