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Are Bilingual Children Late Talkers?
As parents, we simply can’t wait until baby starts talking whether it be in one, two or even three languages. But what is taking him so long? Is something wrong? Probably not. The first words appear anywhere from 9 months to 3 years, which is a really wide spread. One notable multilingual, Albert Einstein, didn’t start to talk until the age of 3 (and yes, his parents did see a doctor about it.) So, rest assured that the time of the first word is no indicator of the inherent intellectual horsepower.

Aside from general individual differences, even the child’s temperament can influence the arrival of speech. Shy children who don’t communicate a lot are typically late speakers and may speak even later if raised multilingual. Bear in mind that talking has nothing to do with other developmental milestones like gross or fine motor skills. The tricky thing with speech is the lack of obvious language milestones in gauging the overall process. Many parents say: "He rolled over at three weeks, crawled at five months, and walked at eight. Why doesn’t he speak yet?" Even if a child advanced in some developmental areas, it’s unlikely he’ll be early in everything (particularly in areas which involve completely different areas of the brain.) Some children make up for their initial lagging behind with a vengeance through reverse language learning order; they begin by speaking in complete sentences. Instead of learning individual words and combining them into sentences, they learn whole sentences and then break them down into words. These children are notoriously late talkers.

Still, it is sometimes difficult not to worry. Here Hina from Pakistan shares her concerns for her son:

“My son is 2 years and 4 months old now and he still cannot say his words clearly. Both my husband and I are from Pakistan, but have a good command of English and have been living in USA the past 7 years. My son is getting speech therapy, and his receptive skills have definitely improved, but he barely says any of his words clearly. He mostly only makes the first sound for instance he may just say baa for ball or aapaa for apple etc.”

The first test in gauging speech development is establishing comprehension in order to rule out any hearing issues. This is very easily done at a regular doctor’s visit, or you can even try it yourself. To check a baby’s level of comprehension before he talks, ask simple questions like, "Where is the doggie?" and see if baby looks at or even points at the dog. You can also try hiding behind something like a couch or a chair, and telling him to bring an object to you. The reason for hiding yourself is to rule out the chance that the child is just applying sophisticated guesswork to compensate for lacking hearing; he could be reading your gestures, expression, body language, etc.

Once you are sure that your child has good hearing, you can test the understanding a bit more in detail; as long as the child understands, most doctors are much less concerned with the delay in the actual speech. You can try out a more advanced two-step requests like: "Come here and turn around so that I can comb your hair." Does your child come but doesn’t turn around, or does he do both? This is a rough indication that hearing and language processing are on track, but that the verbalization is still developing.

Simply put, the three links in the chain to speech include:

  • Auditory — children need to hear in order to imitate sounds correctly and then to link sounds to objects. However, deaf children can still develop a fantastic sense of language through sign language.
  • Neurological — the brain stores and process language, a highly sophisticated mechanism that we don’t share with any other animals. Parrots may repeat words, but they don’t ‘understand’ language.
  • Motor — in order to produce language, fine motor skills are necessary, in order to move the mouth, tongue, vocal cords, etc to produce the sounds. These are highly intricate and precise movements that we rarely appreciate in everyday life — unless you’ve listened to someone who’s had a few drinks too many where a loss of fine motor skills causes the slurring.

In order to establish the underlying reason for a severe speech delay, there should be tests corresponding to each of these areas.

As a point of reference, by age 3, about 50 percent of your child’s speech should be understandable to someone who doesn’t know him. If your child continues to drop consonants (saying "do" for "dog," for example) or to substitute several sounds or syllables for others, speech therapy is a great help. There are usually a couple of particularly difficult sounds in every language that will take some time to straighten out; "R" is a common struggle (you’ll often hear /l/ or /w/ in its place) and so is the letter "k" (commonly /t/ instead) together with the various "sch" sounds.

So, as long as comprehension is there, you can take it in stride — keeping the number of a good speech therapist hand, just in case it persists too long for comfort.

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