For many parents, raising their child in a dual-language household is both an opportunity and a no-brainer. After all, the benefits are vast when it comes to exposing young children (primarily ages 0 to 3, but also up to age 11) to a bilingual education. Still, some parents fret about potential speech delays as well as worries about how to properly introduce (and not overwhelm) their child as they toggle between two or more tongues. We asked a speech pathologist to weigh in.
4 Things a Speech Pathologist Wants You to Know About Raising a Bilingual Child
Spoiler alert: There is zero downside
About the Expert
Jocelyn M. Wood is a New York-based speech therapist and child development expert. She has written a number of books to help augment bilingualism in particular, including My First Bilingual Learn-to-Write Workbook, Colors, Numbers, Shapes & Animals and My First English-Spanish Children’s Coloring Book.
1. Bilingualism Does Not Guarantee Speech Delays
“It’s one of the most common misconceptions: that when you expose a child to two languages, their language will be delayed,” Wood says. “That is absolutely not the case.” While you may see a reduced vocab list to start, that’s only because your child is making space for so many other facets of language development. “A child who is bilingual needs to learn how to code switch—meaning how to switch between two languages—and in order to do that, they need to first become more attuned to the social aspects of language,” Wood explains. By the time they are two years old, they should have the same amount of words as a monolingual developing child—they just might be spread across two different languages, she notes.
2. The ‘One Parent-One Language’ Method Isn’t the Only Road to Success
Wood herself says that when she became a parent, she assumed the ‘one-parent, one-language’ method—the idea that mom always speaks her language with the child while dad always speaks his—would be her go-to. Instead, the Spanish and English speaker found it challenging to stay intentional about that, and quickly learned you don’t have to be so rigid. “Let’s say you have two parents who only speak English, but a nanny who speaks Spanish. The truth is that everyone has their own unique pattern of language and, no matter what, a kid will benefit from all those different inputs.” Bottom line: Exposure matters more than consistency of who is speaking what.
3. Consider the Number of Vocab Words to Measure Learning
Bilingualism is a long game, but per Wood, there are ways to determine if your efforts are paying off. “In the same way we count the number of words a child is saying in English, you can do the same for a second language,” she says. “Remember, you might have 50 words total, [even if it seems like only] 25 words because your kid says them in both English and Spanish.”
4. The Goal is Participation, Not Fluency
Bilingualism has a lot going for it, but the emphasis should still be on fun. In other words, if feels like homework, you’re doing it wrong. “I always think that it’s great to introduce even just pieces of language to kids because it’s new and interesting to them,” Wood says. And remember: seeing the world through different viewpoints is exciting for children. “Different languages explain words in different ways, which means acquiring two or more languages gives a child access to those greater depths of meaning.”