Implications for Therapy with Bilingual Children

I value the precious nature of a heritage or “first” language. I believe parents should never stop speaking that language to their children in their home or at family gatherings. I know that the intimate family connections that tie hearts together are supported by those early communication memories. I know that “old country” and “new country” cultural connections are extremely important to grow a healthy and thriving bilingual family. It’s a richness that cannot be replaced.  The respect for communication with elder monolingual relatives must be maintained, or reflect a 2nd class standing of the heritage language to children.
Apparently this view is not typical of citizens and newcomers to our United States, who value assimilation as the goal. I can see that there are social and economic reasons for this choice. It takes effort and discipline to maintain a bilingual household.  If you and your child need help with this process, contact me.  Public schools do not provide instruction to toddlers/preschoolers learning English as a second language.  If  your child is school age,  instruction through ESOL is usually indirect.


bilingual beginnings

My father was raised as a speaker of an Italian dialect (no longer spoken anywhere) who learned English by playing outside in Baltimore City in the 1920’s.  His memories of that experience are not good!  If you’ve had the pleasure of watching an interview with Louie Zamporini (subject of film “Unbroken”) about his similar situation, you will understand the fighting spirit that grew in his heart.   Lately I’ve become interested in early bilingual language learners after meeting a wonderful family that is bringing up their child as a dual language learner.

Some of my notes to consider, from the ASHA Leader, Nov. 2014 “Becoming Bilingual” by Nidhi Mahendra and Mahchid Namazi

  • Circumstantial bilingualism occurs when one must learn a second language to survive educational, vocational, and societal contexts.  This is often subtractive for adults and children.  Attrition of the first language occurs with associated loss of feelings of cultural belonging and prestige attached to the heritage language. Loss of social and family bonds occurs with those that only speak the heritage language.
  • Elective bilingualism occurs when one chooses to learn a second language to support personal interest, education, or employment goals. This is additive learning and their first language is not lost.
  • In Europe, bilingualism is an asset.  Here in the U.S. bilingualism is typically transitional, with assimilation as the goal.
  • bilingualism builds cognitive reserve and helps to fend off decline in later life or with disease


  • Do what feels comfortable for you and your family. Don’t try to speak a language with your child if you are not comfortable or fluent In that language
  • Don’t worry if your child mixes his two languages. This is a normal part of becoming bilingual Provide your child with many opportunities to hear, speak, play, and interact in your home language.
  • If you think your child has a language delay, consult a speech language pathologist for advice regarding the best ways to help your child learn more than one language.

Our world is becoming increasingly multilingual. Consider some of the following statistics:

In Canada….

  • 11.9 % of the population speaks a language other than English or French at home (1). In Toronto, 31% of the population speaks a language other than English or French at home (2).

In the United States….

  • 21% of school-age children (between ages 5-17) speak a language other than English at home (3). This number is projected to increase in the coming years (4).

Worldwide, it is estimated that….

  • there are more second language speakers of English than native speakers (5).
  • there are as many bilingual children as there are monolingual  children (10).

Benefits of Bilingualism

  • Bilingual children are better able to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distractions (7, 8). For more information, click here for our article “Are Two Languages Better Than One?”.
  • Bilingual individuals have been shown to be more creative and better at planning and solving complex problems than monolinguals (9, 10).
  • The effects of aging on the brain are diminished among bilingual adults (7).
  • In one study, the onset of dementia was delayed by 4 years in bilinguals compared to monolinguals with dementia (10).
  • Bilingual individuals have greater access to people and resources (9).
  • In Canada, employment rates are higher for French/English bilinguals than monolinguals (7).
  • Canadians who speak both official languages have a median income nearly 10% higher than that of those who speak English only, and 40% higher than that of those who speak French only (7).

The cognitive advantages of bilingualism (e.g . with attention, problem solving, etc.) seem to be related
to an individual’s proficiency in his languages (10). This means that a person will benefit more from his
bilingualism (cognitively) if he is more proficient in his languages.

How children learn more than one language

Bilingual acquisition can take place in one of two ways: 

  1. Simultaneous Acquisition occurs when a child is raised bilingually from birth, or when the second language is introduced before the age of three (10). Children learning two languages simultaneously go through the same developmental stages as children learning one language. While bilingual children may start talking slightly later than monolingual children, they still begin talking within the normal range (11). From the very beginning of language learning, simultaneous bilinguals seem to acquire two separate languages (10). Early on, they are able to differentiate their two languages and have been shown to switch languages according to their conversation partner (e.g. speak French to a French-speaking parent, then switch to English with an English-speaking parent) (12, 13).
  2. Sequential Acquisition occurs when a second language is introduced after the first language is well-established (generally after the age of three). Children may experience sequential acquisition if they immigrate to a country where a different language is spoken. Sequential learning may also occur if the child exclusively speaks his heritage language at home until he begins school, where instruction is offered in a different language.

A child who acquires a second language in this manner generally experiences the following (10):

  • initially, he may use his home language for a brief period.
  • he may go through a “Silent” or “Nonverbal” Period when he is first exposed to a second language. This can last from a few weeks to several months, and is most likely a time when the child builds his understanding of the language (14). Younger children usually remain in this phase longer than older children. Children may rely on using gestures in this period, and use few words in the second language.
  • he will begin to use short or imitative sentences. The child may use one-word labels or memorized phrases such as “I dunno” or “What’s this?”. These sentences are not constructed from the child’s own vocabulary or knowledge of the language. Rather, they are phrases he has heard and memorized.
  • eventually, he will begin to produce his own sentences. These sentences are not entirely memorized, and incorporate some of the child’s own newly-learned vocabulary. The child may use a “formula” at first when constructing sentences and insert his own word into a common phrase such as “I want…” or “I do….”. Eventually the child becomes more and more fluent, but continues to make grammatical mistakes or produce sentences that sound abbreviated because he is missing some grammatical rules (e.g. “I no want eat apple” instead of “I don’t want to eat an apple”). Some of the mistakes a child makes at this stage are due to the influence of his first language. But many of the mistakes are the same types of mistakes that monolingual children make when they learn that language.