Bilingual Children and the Sounds They Make


I created this post to help you with two questions we often hear as speech therapists:

Why is my child having difficulty speaking clearly? Will exposing my child to two languages make his speech worse?

When I discuss speech sound development, I assume most parents know this as articulation.  When you see that your child has difficulty with articulation, especially if your child is a toddler or preschooler, most likely she actually has difficulty with the organization of her speech sound system. An easy way to think of this as an adult is to think of learning a new language. Imagine when someone is trying to teach you to say a new word. They tell you, say the Portuguese word for heart, “coração.”  You repeat that new word back to them thinking you’ve said it correctly, but they just shake their head and tell you to try it again. Maybe you were off just a bit,– or maybe you totally decimated the word. What’s happening is that your brain is not quite differentiating and processing these new and unique sounds. Your brain knows the thirty or forty sounds that you use everyday to produce words in your language but different languages can have widely varying sound systems and if our brains weren’t exposed to these different sounds as little children, it’s very difficult later on to pick up on the subtleties of these sounds.  This  makes it much more difficult to produce the new word. You haven’t processed the distinct sounds of this  word correctly so there’s very little chance for your brain to signal your mouth how to place your teeth and tongue and jaw to produce these unfamiliar sounds. The problem isn’t hearing the word. The person telling you the word in a foreign language  could even repeat herself or shout it out, which would be rude, and also unhelpful.  Speaking loudly will not help. You first need to distinguish the sounds correctly so that your brain will send the signals to your mouth, tongue, and jaw. Only then will you be able to pronounce the word correctly. We must first hear a sound before we can produce it.

This is the struggle many children have when they have a phonological disorder. They may not correctly process the sounds they are hearing and so cannot reproduce them. Or they may distinguish the sounds but have difficulty with the coordination of their mouths to produce these sounds.  A speech-language therapist is the best person to consult with to determine if your child’s challenges with speech-sound production is due to difficulty with processing sounds or difficulty coordinating their mouth to produce the sounds.  Remember, though, that it is normal for young children to produce errors in their speech depending on their age and language(s).

Will Learning Two Languages Delay My Child’s Speech Sound Development

In a previous post, I discussed how learning two languages does not slow down or interfere with your child’s language development. This is true for children with or without a developmental disorder. But, what about their speech sound development? A recent study by Gildersleeve-Neumann, Peña, Davis, & Kester (2017) evaluated the speech sounds of Spanish speaking preschoolers who began to learn English when they enrolled in preschool. At the end of the school year, the children produced some difficult sounds in Spanish earlier than expected, which is great! They also began to have some vowel errors (remember vowels are a, e, i, o, u) in Spanish as English began to influence their Spanish, although the amount of errors was very small. So, yes, you can expect the two languages to influence each other as their sound systems develop.  In children without speech-language impairments, learning two different languages gives their speech sound awareness a boost and they excel in some areas of speech development and sound awareness.  One study I became aware of recently demonstrated that children with better language abilities in English and Spanish had more advanced speech-sound development. Research shows us that strengthening language abilities in both languages leads to the best outcomes and the research by Goldstein et. al (2010) suggests that the stronger the language abilities, the clearer and more accurate the speech sound development will be.

We do not have a lot of studies in this area for children with speech-language impairments and hope to get more but as of now, there is still no evidence that learning two languages will worsen a speech sound disorder. Language and speech sound production are more closely tied together than some people realize. So, if your language skills are strengthened, your speech abilities often improve as well. I have mentioned studies in some of my other posts that show that by supporting the primary language, the second language will have a better foundation for development. Even if you speak two languages in the home from the time your child is born, there is no evidence that you should take one of those languages away if your child starts to have difficulties with communication development. There is evidence though, which I’ll explain in a future post, your child will need to practice his speech sounds in both languages in order to improve in both languages. In other words, practicing the speech sounds in one language may not correct the speech sound errors in the second language.

As I’ve recommended in other posts, it’s important to consider your motivation for exposing your child to two (or more) languages. If exposing your child to a  language other than the dominant community language is something important to you, if it helps to keep family ties strong, if it allows you to communicate with your child in your strongest language, then it can definitely be worth the effort in learning the hows and whys of speaking two languages.

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