Photo by Karin Pedersen Photography

I grew up in a bilingual household.  My family speaks both English and Cantonese.  I don’t use my Cantonese language as much as I used to anymore.  But I want my daughter Madi and my son George to be fluent in Cantonese. Someone once told me that learning two languages may negatively affect speech development which made me wonder what the research says.  

Does learning two languages cause speech or language delays? 

The medical evidence largely suggests that the answer to this question is no! Learning two languages at the same time has not been shown to cause speech delay or language problems. Bilingual children as young as preschool age are able to differentiate between two languages.  They also learn which contexts and how to use each language.  

Bilingual children have a tendency to mix up languages and vocabulary early in life.  But this typically resolves by 36 months old.  By 36 months old, children can be fluent bilingually.  

Will my bilingual child have worse vocabulary skills?

Current medical literature has found there is no increase in speech problems, which includes no delay in vocabulary development for bilingual children.  

Most bilingual children do not acquire both languages at the same time, in the same way, and with the same skills. It is very normal for a bilingual child to be stronger in one language compared to the other. This does not suggest speech delay or speech problems.  

If you are worried about your child’s speech development, there are certain red flag milestones to look out for.  These red flag milestones also apply to bilingual children.  

Can my child “lose” a language?

For a child to maintain language skills, they need to have frequent exposure to the language.  As long as the second language is spoken regularly (either at school or in the home) they will likely not lose their language skills.  

I hope to encourage my children to speak Cantonese with me and my family members.  It will also help me to keep up my fluency as well!

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc, Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc, and Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP .

References

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