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Killing Off the Myths: Bilingual Kids At A Loss for Words


One of my biggest fears about raising bilingual kids was that I'd heard about the likelihood of a language delay. Well, that and being left out. I was very worried about being the monolingual one out.

But a language delay made me nervous. I was so eager to have conversations with my little girl, and she was constantly frustrated that her points and grunts and tantrums weren't communicating her ultimate message.

In fact, around 18ish months, I did consider going English-only for a while because I was so eager for her to talk. She seemed agitated, and I wanted to give her every possible avenue to be able to communicate.

I had also read an interesting heads up in a book on bilingual parenting. It said kids entering school may appear to have limited vocabularies compared to their monolingual peers. This "deficit" could cause teachers to encourage us to drop the second language to build up her first.

The book asserted that, in actuality, bilingual kids would have an equal vocabulary in total, but words may be divided between the multiple languages. A monolingual encounter then may make the child appear to know fewer words. That small piece of advice stuck with me, and I tucked it away for a rainy day.

So I was prepared for language delay and a quiet building of two vocabulary sets that, on their own, may seem below age level.

Nope.

In our case, that's not what happened at all. I wouldn't say Ella was an early talker, but she was not noticeably late. More shocking to me, though, is that she knows all. of. the. words.

I can't ever imagine anyone telling me that she's not speaking enough in English. Seriously.

In fact, it's not uncommon for folks to comment on how communicative/talkative/articulate she is. Now, I recognize that her dual vocabularies have not grown equally. And the few times she does start speaking in Spanish sentences, I've heard her switch mid-way to speaking English with a Spanish accent. (ha!)

I'm not worried, though. I know that her Spanish is developing and growing, and we're continuing to foster it. We are a predominately English-speaking household living in an English-speaking community. I know her Spanish will take some extra nurturing.

But I am relieved that the concerns I'd read about, including language delay and limited vocabularies, have been minimal to non-existent in our experience. If you're out there considering bilingual education or worried about the effects on language development, I just want to encourage you that it doesn't always mean a delay or limitation for every kid.

And honestly, even if there is a short delay or it takes them a little while longer to fill out their word bank, these seasons quickly pass. Growing kids is kind of like boiling water, in my opinion. And (especially with the first-born) there is a lot of watching, waiting for each stage to emerge.

Barring some unique circumstances where there are some delays that need attention, most kids really do come right along. Everyone simply moves at their own pace. Don't give up on that second (or third or twelfth) language because you're worried it'll take longer. It's totally worth it! And in our case, the surprise was that it really didn't delay at all.

Have you worried about raising bilingual kids because of concerns you've heard?

6 comments

  1. Thank you, Sarah, for the post! Great job, Ella! I think it is important to let other parents know that bilingual children are not always late talkers. They can even start speaking early and have a great vocabulary in all the languages. My two children are one more proof. They started speaking at the same time as monolinguals kids do.

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  2. Absolutely. I was so worried about delayed speech and limited vocabulary. It ended up not being a big deal. I've also realized that even if she had spoken late or with fewer words, it's a finite price to pay for the benefits of bilingualism.

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  3. Just found your blog via The Lady Errant. We're raising a Chinese/Austrian boy. He's only 5 months old, so I can't say anything about his language development yet. Just wanted to say hi and that I'm already in love with your writing. You have a lot of great content and there's so much I can relate to since I'm also in a cross-cultural relationship.

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  4. Hi! I'm so glad you introduced yourself. I loved checking out your blog, and I'm excited to meet you. We definitely have a lot in common! :)

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  5. Beth D2:19 PM

    I have tutored a lot of bilingual kids. Wow! Are they smart! I always tell parents to keep doing what they are doing; to not switch to one language. It might seem like a delay is happening, but it's just the brain trying to figure out what language to reapond in!
    occassionally, there is a delay, just like any other child might have, but no more of a chance of that happening just because they are bilingual. I think quite the opposite just as you have experienced! Good job, Momma!!

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  6. Yay! Thanks for the encouragement! And it's great to know there are instructors out there encouraging parents to stick with two languages. That's awesome!

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