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Young Children Learning Multiple Languages: Parent FAQs

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More than 20% of children in the United States use a language besides spoken English at home. Scientists are learning more about the benefits of knowing more than one language, or multilingualism.

Becoming multilingual helps children maintain strong ties to their family, culture and community. Using more than one language can also improve a child's overall communication, literacy and math skills—and these are just a few of the benefits.

Multilingual kids: myths & facts

Despite the benefits, many parents have concerns about their child learning more than one language. Often, this is based on some common myths that persist. Unfortunately, these myths can lead families to restrict their child's exposure to their heritage languages.

Here are some of the common questions parents may have about multilingualism—and the answers to help set the record straight:

Does using more than one language with infants and toddlers cause delays in their communication development?

No. Children are learning to communicate long before using their first word. These early communication milestones, such as giggling, smiling and babbling, are the same in all languages.

Most children speak their first word around 12 months. By 24 months, most children use two-word phrases (such as "my ball" or "no juice"). These are the same developmental milestones for children no matter how many languages they are exposed to.

If a child uses more than one language, the total number of words should be about the same as the number used by a child of the same age who is learning one language.

For example, a child who speaks English may have 50 words in English by age 2 years. A child who speaks English and Spanish may have 25 words in English and 25 words in Spanish. They both have the same total number of words.

Will using more than one language with my child cause a speech or language disorder?

No. Speech or language problems are not caused by learning multiple languages. It is common for children all over the world to learn multiple languages without any difficulties. The best way for a child to develop strong communication skills is to be exposed to as much language as possible.

Parents and caregivers should use the language(s) they're most comfortable with when communicating with their child. By being exposed to multiple languages, children can observe and practice how communication may change based on the situation or setting (such as talking to grandparents in their heritage language versus talking to a store clerk in English).

If a child has a speech or language problem, it will show up in all languages that a child uses. If a multilingual child is diagnosed with a speech or language disorder, a speech-language pathologist can work with the child in their heritage language.

Sometimes families can find a speech-language pathologist who speaks their language. If they can't, the speech-language pathologist can work with an interpreter. Contact your local Early Intervention program, or search the national provider database of the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association, to get an evaluation if you have concerns about your child's speech and language skills.

Will learning more than one language confuse my child?

No. Some multilingual children may mix grammar rules from time to time, or they might use words from all of their languages in the same sentence (for example, "quiero mas juice" [I want more juice]).

This is normal. It does not mean that your child is confused. Usually by age 3, multilingual children can separate their languages. In other words, they can use the language most appropriate for the person they're communicating with, whether it's a familiar person or someone they don't know.

Can children with speech or language disorders learn more than one language?

Yes! Research shows that children with speech, language and other developmental disorders can learn additional languages. Of course, they will need lots of exposure and opportunities to practice—just like any child learning more than one language.

Given all the benefits of multilingualism, parents and caregivers should not hesitate to use multiple languages around (and with!) their child who has a speech or language disorder.

If your child is receiving speech-language therapy, ask their speech-language pathologist about activities you can do with them to support their communication skills in all their languages.

Should I stop using my heritage language(s) with my child once they enter school to promote English language development?

No. Research shows many academic advantages of being multilingual. These advantages include enhanced problem solving and multitasking skills. Multilingual speakers also have social and behavioral advantages such as improved focus and self-control.

You will not confuse your child, set them back academically, or prevent them from learning English by using your language(s) with your child. You are setting them up for academic success!

Language exposure also is important in written forms, such as reading books in your heritage language(s). This helps build your child's vocabulary. Your child can also learn by listening to videos, audiobooks and podcasts in their heritage language. You may also want to explore formal instruction in their language(s), such as a multilingual school or daycare, heritage language programs or English language development classes.

If my child does not learn an additional language when they are very young, can they ever become fluent?

Yes. Young children appear to learn languages easily and quickly. This is due to a rapid period of brain development that occurs between birth and 3 years. But older children and adults can also learn additional languages.

Young multilingual learners are more likely to develop high spoken proficiency, similar to single-language users. However, some studies suggest that older learners can acquire languages quickly, if not faster, than younger learners in school settings. This is because older learners often have a strong foundation of primary language, literacy and concepts. This foundation builds strategies to help learn additional languages.

The bottom line is that you can learn additional languages at any age, with frequent exposure and regular practice.

Do you have to be equally fluent in all languages to be considered multilingual?

No. There is no single, or "right," way to be multilingual. Many people who are multilingual have a language they use most, but this can change over time.

Multilingual children often communicate using words and languages they know best. Language use and choice may change based on where they are, who they are speaking with, and what the topic of conversation is. Regular use and practice helps children develop and retain their languages for the long-term.

More information

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American Academy of Pediatrics and American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (Copyright © 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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