The multilingual child’s stages of speech

When a child grows up in a multilingual environment they are given the key to a wonderful new and rich world. But this world can be challenging at times. Parents might worry when their children don’t start to speak when expected in one or all of their languages.

Understanding the stages that a child goes through before speaking will help parents to evaluate at what point in their development their child is and whether there is any need for worry or action.

Stage 1: The Silent Period

This is an important stage that should not be rushed. Infants are able to understand a lot before they can speak any words and their ability to comprehend should not be underestimated. In fact they always understand much more than they are able to produce in words.

During this stage toddlers take time to observe, hypothesise and test their understanding of vocabulary.  They might even be making an effort to communicate with you non-verbally. Note that this stage lasts much longer for some children and it is very important not to compare or measure their progress with other children*. Remember every child is different. If a child prioritises movement they might focus on learning to walk over learning to speak. They cannot possibly work on everything they need to learn in life at the same time.

Introducing baby sign language during this stage can be a huge support for families and act as a bridge between the languages baby is exposed to.

Stage 2: Beginning to talk

In this exciting stage infants are beginning to attempt sounds and then words. For example, the word milk might come out first as ‘muh’ or ‘mimi’, evolving into ‘milk’ as they gain more command of their speech muscles and increase in confidence.

Perhaps you’ll hear them trying out some statements that they have memorised exactly as they heard them. ‘That’s a dog’. ‘Let’s go home’.

This stage can last a very long time and overlap with stage 3 as they continue to build up their vocabulary and grammatical knowledge.

Stage 3: Building up language

During this stage children start to modify memorised statements and create their own sentences. ‘Time to go home’ might become ‘time to play’ or ‘potty time’.

With continued parental support, high quality and frequent exposure to each language you can be sure your child will continue to progress on their journey of becoming multilingual.

Note: One language can dominate over another. It’s possible that both languages develop at the same speed. Or that your child doesn’t seem to attempt speech in any language. All these scenarios are considered normal and not a cause for worry.

*If you are worried about the rate of your child’s development it is important to seek out the appropriate support from a professional. If the problem is related to their speech I strongly suggest finding a therapist that is experienced in working with multilingual children because they are known to progress and develop differently to monolingual children.

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I organise workshops and language courses for infants and children in Delft, South Holland, in an effort to support them and their families on the long rocky beautiful road of multilingualism. Please get in touch (info @ englishvoice .nl) to find out more.