Speech Development in Bilingual Children

The Different Types of bilingualism

There are two ways children become bilingual: Simultaneous and Successive.

Simultaneous language acquisition is when a child is exposed to 2 languages from birth in natural situations. This often happens when both parents speak two languages to a child or each parent speaks a different language to the child (or caregivers). These children tend to speak their first words and word combinations at the same time as children who speak just one language (monolingual) children (Kayser, 2002 as cited in Roseberry-McKibbin, 2003).

Successive language acquisition is when a child is exposed the first language, during infancy, and learns the second language, at a later time. In this type of acquisition, children may show greater diversity in rates and stages of acquisition of the languages (Kayser, 2002; Langdon, 1992 as cited in Roseberry-McKibbin, 2003). A child learning a second language manifests normal characteristics and processes as the second language is being acquired. Some of these characteristics include a silent period, language loss, code switching, and transfer.

The Silent Period & Language Loss

In the early stages of learning a second language, most students focus on comprehension and do very little speaking, particularly when the second language is introduced in the preschool years. Children introduced to a second language during the preschool years may speak very little in their first or second language for an extended period of time (Brice, 2002; Hakuta, 1978; Krashen, 1992; Schiff-Myers, 1992; Tabors, 1997 as cited in Roseberry-McKibbin, 2003). This is referred to as the “silent period”. If the second language is introduced before a the first language foundation has been established (6-8 years of age), this first language development may slow or even regress while the second language is being learned (Cummins, 1992; Schiff-Myers, 1992 as cited in Roseberry-McKibbin, 2003). This is known as language loss. For example, if a Spanish only speaking child is introduced to English in preschool at age 3, he may stop speaking very much in Spanish for a while as he is trying to learn English.

Ideally, to best prevent the language loss of their first language (also referred to as subtractive bilingualism) children should experience additive bilingualism, where they learn English while their first language and culture are maintained and reinforced.

Code Switching & Transfers

In addition to the silent period and language loss, code switching is a common phenomenon observed in bilingual children (Brice and Anderson, 1999 as cited in Roseberry-McKibbin, 2003). This refers to when children or adults alternate between the two languages within a single phrase, sentence, or discourse. Another common process seen in second language learners is transfer. When students are learning a second language, they make errors that reflect the influence of their first language. For example, an Italian speaking child may say “The car blue” in English, rather than “The blue car”. This is a transfer from their first language and not a sign of problems with syntax in English. Transfer can occur in all areas including syntax, morphology, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics. These errors of transfer are not signs of a communication disorder, but rather indicate a language difference.

The Myths

Now that we have gone over the basics of second language learning, let’s clear up some myths!

MYTH: Bilingualism causes delays in language development.
FALSE: Research on bilingualism has proven this myth to be very false. If a bilingual child is struggling in the area of speech and language development, he should be evaluated for a language disorder not attributed to a second language.

MYTH: If you want your child to speak the language of his peers (a second language), you must stop speaking your home language to him
FALSE: There is no evidence to suggest that this is an effective method for your child to learn the language of his peers. For example, if you speak Spanish at home, you can continue to speak Spanish at home when you send your child to an English speaking preschool.

Additional Resources

Bilingualism in young Children: Separating fact from Fiction by Lauren Lowry, SLP, for The Hanen Centre
Are Two Languages Better Thank One? By Lauren Lowry, SLP, for The Hanen Centre


Roseberry-McKibbin (2003). Assessment of Bilingual Learners: Language Difference or Disorder? an American Speech-Language Hearing Association Professional Development Program.

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