Kristin Fenner, MA, CF-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist-Clinical Fellow

How do you identify a language delay in a bilingual learner?

Similar to identifying a language delay in monolingual, one language, children, a language delay is identified by a licensed speech-language pathologist, typically by giving a standardized assessment or using clinical observation. The main difference with bilingual learners, however, is that assessments need to be given in both languages in order to determine if the child has a language delay, or if they are just a bit behind in learning one of their languages. A bilingual assessment MUST compare the bilingual child you are testing to other children who are also bilingual in order to determine a delay.  

What are the signs and symptoms of language delay and how is it diagnosed?

Signs and symptoms of a language delay are the same in bilingual and monolingual speakers. Usually, a parent, physician, or caregiver notices that the child is not talking as much or understanding as much as peers. The milestones and abilities that a child should have are based on their age. The main difference between monolingual and bilingual speakers is that if there in a language delay present, the speaker will have a delay in ALL languages spoken.

As a bilingual child gets older, they may switch between languages or confuse the grammar of their two languages. This is called code-switching and is a normal part of bilingualism. Children as young as two are able to code-switch and it is not considered language delay.

Are there certain milestones bilingual learners should reach by certain age categories?

Often, parents and medical professionals worry about the language development of bilingual language learners. It is important to remember that the child is getting multiple language inputs. During the early years of language learning, children have to learn the vocabulary, grammar, and differences between two separate language systems. This may be a bilingual child who is considered to be a “late talker” compared to monolingual peers. As seen in the table below, while many of the early language milestones are about the same, bilingual children don’t put two words together until 3-3 ½ years old, compared to monolingual speakers that put two words together around 2 1/2 – 3 years old. Every bilingual child learns language differently depending on the exposure amount, use of languages in the home, and their community.

Vocabulary development for bilingual speakers occurs at approximately the same rate as monolingual speakers. When taking an account of vocabulary, all words spoken must be counted.  For example, a child might know five animals in English, ten foods in Spanish, and “hello” in both English and Spanish. This child would have a vocabulary of 16 (5+10+2). Knowing how to say “hello” in both English and Spanish is counted as only one concept, therefore counts as one in a vocabulary count.

What is bilingual speech therapy and how do you know if your child needs it?

Bilingual speech therapy is speech therapy for language delays, articulation disorders, or fluency disorders that is provided in more than one language. A child with a disorder in one language will have a disorder in all languages spoken. Bilingual speech therapy is needed if a child speaks more than one language and has a speech or language disorder. 

However, there may not be a bilingual speech therapist available to provide services given the shortage of bilingual therapists and wide variety of languages spoken in the United States. If the child has strong English skills, speech therapy may be provided in English along with home activities to be practiced in their other languages. The goal of speech therapy is to improve a child’s skills in all languages that they speak, not just English.

What can a parent(s) do to help their child? 

Continue to use any and all languages with your child and in your home. Bilingualism will not hurt your child’s speech or language abilities. In fact, bilingualism has many advantages in brain development and school success. If parents are fluent in all languages their child speaks, model words or phrases in all languages.

For additional information, below are recommended references to learn more:

References are for informational purposes only and they are not intended to replace physician and/or speech therapy treatment(s).

  • Prath, S. (2016). Red Flags for Speech-Language Impairment in Bilingual Children. The ASHA Leader, 21(11), 32-33. Doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.21112016.32
  • Zimmerman, I. L., Steiner, V. G., Pond, R. E., Karas, G. B., Marshall, J., Boland, J., Marshall, E., ... PsychCorp (Firm),. (2011). PLS-5: Preschool Language Scales.
  • Zimmerman, I. L., Steiner, V. G., Pond, R. E., PsychCorp (Firm),. (2012). PLS-5 Spanish Edition: Preschool Language Scales.