Is My Bilingual Child’s Language On Track?

When you begin to ask if your baby’s language is on target, we speech therapists, ST’s, ask you to compare your child’s speech and language to common communication milestones to see if your child has met them. Although each child is different in how soon they begin to use words or speak in short phrases, we see that the majority of children reach communication milestones, like their first words, at the same age, give or take a few months. This is helpful for parents to know as lack of reaching developmental milestones can be a signal that your child may need support in some way to help their language grow and develop. Although your child may catch up on his own, there are still many important reasons to look further into why he isn’t reaching his milestones. There can be many causes for this and even something as common as recurrent ear infections could be impacting your child’s communication development.  Children with chronic ear infections, for example, are at a higher risk for late talking because they cannot hear and distinguish the subtle speech sounds around them. So, although you might read on a parenting blog that there’s no need to worry about your child’s language development because, hey, look at Einstein (who was said did not begin to speak until age four), it is still very much worth it to investigate your child’s language development a little further if you see reasons for concern.

For children who are bilingual or even trilingual, there is a common myth out there that speaking multiple languages will cause your child to reach developmental milestones at a much later age. I’ve worked with professionals in education and even they are susceptible to the idea that learning two languages means not meeting those developmental milestones. I have overheard comments about how a grandchild will probably start speaking later than expected because he’s learning English and Spanish or that it’s expected that the niece should still be speaking unclearly at age five because she’s learning English and Russian simultaneously. This isn’t true. So, these myths persist even among those who work in education. When it comes down to it, bilingual children reach milestones at roughly the same age as their monolingual peers. We expect some variation yes, but overall, they are hitting those milestones at the same age.

Here’s what we do know about language and speech development for babies and toddlers who are bilingual and are exposed to both languages from birth. Remember, the later given age in the age range is what 90% of multilingual children are able to do at this age, not what the average child can do.


Social Communication: How your baby interacts with you, both with and without word

6-9 months


Joint Attention: The definition of joint attention is when your child is able to share her interest in another object, such as a dog walking by or a bus driving down the street, with you. The child looks between you and the object and shares an emotion with you about how exciting it is to see this object or animal.


9-12 months


Gestures: This could include pointing at what your child wants, lifting her arms to mean she wants to be picked up, or using beginning baby sign language, such as putting her hands together to signal “more”


12-15 months


Follows Simple Directions: At this age, a baby can follow simple directions, such as “give me the ball”, or “come here” or, “let’s pat the cat gently.”  Of course your baby may not always follow these directions, especially if she’s not so inclined to at the moment, but for the most part, she can understand and follow through on routine directions. Perhaps some directions she follows in one language and others in a different language. This all depends on how much she’s being spoken to in each language.


18 months


Pretend Play


At this age, a child can begin to use his imagination in play. Play is hugely important in development because it gives us a peek into how your child can use his observations about the world around him and imagination and carry those out in play. Pretend play at this age usually consists of feeding a doll or playing with small toy animals that “moo” and “baa” at each other as they walk around the living room floor.


Vocabulary Development


12 months


First words, usually consisting of “mama” and “dada” and perhaps the pet cat.


15 months


At least six to eight total words, meaning maybe your child has four words in English and two in Arabic.


18-20 months


A vocabulary of 20 to 50 words, again, we are looking at combining the total amount of words your has in all of the languages they are exposed to.


24 months


Combines two words such as mommy apple! Or your child may be code-switching saying Mommy manzana! This is very normal for bilingual children.


If your child is bilingual and not meeting these milestones, talk with your pediatrician about a referral to see a speech-language therapist. You can also look on for help in finding  an ST in your area.

Feel free to email me or comment below with any questions or suggestions on information you’d like on bilingual language development.


This information was taken from the following sources:


Prath, Scott. Red Flags for Speech-Language Impairment in Bilingual Children: Differentiate disability from disorder by understanding common developmental milestones. The ASHA Leader, November 2016, Vol. 21, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.21112016.32


Patterson, Janet. Expressive Vocabulary Development and Word Combinations of Spanish-English Bilingual Toddlers.  American Journal of Speech Language Pathology. November 1998, Vol. 7, 46-56. doi:10.1044/1058-0360.0704.46

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