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Speech Therapy and Multilingual Children

What are the main reasons why one language suffers more than others in multilingual children?
It is rare to be equally proficient in all languages. Most multilinguals have a ‘dominant language’, a language of greater proficiency. This dominant language is influenced by the person’s exposure to this language and this can change with age, education, social circles etc. Often the language spoken in school can become stronger over time as children spend most of their day in school and their friends will often speak the school language together.

How do you assess whether a child is suffering in one language more than another?
Firstly I conduct a case history with the parent/caregiver to get an idea of the child’s exposure to different languages and what the concerns about a particular language are. For assessment, I assess skills across both languages and use a range of techniques depending on the individual case. For example I could tell a short story with pictures and ask the child to retell the story in English and then use an interpreter to do the same for the child’s other language. The interpreter can inform me if the child was easy to understand or not and if they used the correct grammar and vocabulary when retelling the story. I can then analyse both languages and make recommendations.

Is it more common to see problems in children speaking English when they have just one native English speaker as a parent? Not necessarily. It all depends on the wider social context of the child’s exposure to languages. For example if the family live in Germany and Mum speaks English, Dad speaks German and the child goes to a German speaking school then the child will more than likely have a stronger grasp of German simply because he/she is exposed more to it in his/her day to day life e.g. school, bus, shops, T.V. etc. It all depends on circumstance and as noted previously this can change and so can language proficiency.

When do you think is the best age for children to be exposed to more than one language in order for them to become bilingual/multilingual? Are there different levels of Biligualism/Multilingualism?
Bilingual acquisition can occur in two ways: 1) Sequential-when a child is raised bilingually from birth or the second language is introduced before the age of three. 2) Simultaneous- when the second language is introduced after the age of three. There is a “Critical Period” theory that suggests that a second language can be learned more easily in young children than older children or adults learning a second language. Generally speaking the younger the child is exposed to a new language the better. Every child and family circumstance is different and each family should speak the languages that come most naturally to them.

Is it confusing for a child to be learning one language at school and another at home? Is it better for a child to be more proficient in one language before mastering another?
There is no evidence to suggest that it's any harder for a child to acquire two languages than it is for the child to acquire one language. As long as people are regularly speaking with the child in both languages, the child will acquire them both easily. As a therapist working with a mostly bilingual caseload in London I often stressed to parents the importance of providing a good example of any language to their child before school. Parents can do this by speaking to their child in the language they are most comfortable speaking e.g. their native language and the child can learn the other language at school.

Does bilingual/multilingual children's speech generally develop later than children learning just one language?
Bilingualism does not cause language delay. Research shows that bilingual children say their first words within the normal age range (between 8-15 months) and they develop grammar along the same patterns and time scales as children learning one language. If a bilingual child is having difficulty developing language at the typical milestones you should see a speech and language therapist for assessment and advice.

Is it true that a child’s brain develops quicker when exposed to different languages at an early age?
There is a large evidence base reporting the benefits to being bilingual, one of these is the cognitive advantages associated with being bilingual e.g. attention skills, planning and problem solving. Research has found that the cognitive advantages of being bilingual are related to the persons proficiency in their languages, suggesting the more proficient you are in your languages the more you benefit cognitively.

As a speech therapist, how do you address the problems children face when one language suffers more than another?
I would work with the child and their family and school if possible to establish why one language is more proficient. Usually it is a case of more language exposure to one language or the quality of that language exposure. My advice would be to increase the child’s exposure to proficient speakers of the target language and engage the child in fun motivating activities they enjoy where the target language is used.

How do you deal with a child who refuses to speak a second language altogether?
There is what is known as a ‘silent period’ when a child proficient in one language is then exposed to a new language e.g. often when starting school with a new language. This is a normal period in the acquisition of a second language in young children. It can last from a few weeks to a few months while the child begins to understand the new language. The child should be allowed this time to settle and become comfortable in the environment where this language is used. After this time with good models of the new language the child should gradually start to speak and build their new vocabulary.

Approximately how long does it take for a child to ‘catch up’?
There is no one answer to this as children catch up to native speakers in different aspects of language at different times depending on many factors including: the child’s age of exposure to the new language, quality of exposure and if the child is motivated to speak the language.

What can parents do to ensure their children are comfortable speaking all the languages they are exposed to?
Parents should speak the language they are most comfortable speaking with their child, this provides a good language model. Once children know how to use one language they usually learn another one quite quickly. In order to become comfortable speaking all languages your child will need constant and rich exposure to all languages. Observe how your child is picking up a new language. If after a few months they have learned little or none of that language you may need to consider bringing your child to a speech and language therapist for assessment. If you have concerns about your child’s speech, language or communication you can contact me at or visit I also regularly post research based information on my Twitter feed, follow me @SLT_Frankfurt

Andrea Regan Speech and Language Therapist working in Frankfurt and Main
Tel: 0176 35398420