Multilingualism and early language development

The benefits of being exposed to multiple languages from a young age have been widely discussed and researched, highlighting the cognitive benefits of being exposed to more than one language. It is said that multilingualism increases the brain’s flexibility. Bilingual people are better at planning and executing tasks and retaining and retrieving information as a result of exercising their brain, to switch between two or more languages, recall words and apply different grammatical rules.

Children have an innate ability to acquire a language by interacting with their family and wider community. Language acquisition typically follows a process, starting with babbling, which evolves into single words, followed by two-words combined and then developing in to sentences.

The languages they learn contribute to their social identity. Research has shown that children exposed to more than one language, are able to differentiate between different languages from as young as four months old, even though their own language is not full developed.

What is the process of multi-language acquisition?

Although some children acquire two languages simultaneously from birth, others acquire the second language sequentially. Studies have shown that if the cognitive language acquisition processes are happening successfully in the child’s first language, they will be transferred seamlessly to the second language.

The bilingual child often switches between the two languages and sometimes even mixes them in a sentence. This process is known as “code switching” which follows very logical rules, rather than the child getting confused, applying the grammatical rules to the borrowed word/s and tenses.

Bilingualism and children with speech and language communication needs

But is this still true for a child who has delayed language or a-typical language development? Is bilingualism in children with speech and language delay still an advantage and does the language acquisition process follow the same steps? 

When language delay has been identified, the question over whether to expose a child to two languages is a difficult one, with many assuming that this would cause further language delay. Add to this, the fact that most interventions to support a child with language delay are provided in the language of the country in which they live and would not support their home or second language.

But we have to remember, that the second language is more than just words. It shapes the child’s social, cultural and emotional identity and by not exposing them to it, they can feel alienated from their family life. It is important that the child’s first language is acknowledged and continued to be used at home. The child spends most of their time at home and if parents are not fluent in English, their communication with their child will be limited and unnatural. Equally the parents can fail to make emotional connections with their child if they are limited by their own fluency.

So, having established the importance of exposing a child with language delay to both languages, does this impact negatively on their general language development?

Much of the research that has been undertaken, demonstrates that bilingual children with language delay have relatively equal vocabulary size and comprehension as their monolingual peers regardless of their presenting social skills and even and increased amount of functional gestures, compared to monolingual children after intervention. 

However, the key take-away from the research was that it suggested that it is the quality and the amount of language exposure that was the strongest predictor of vocabulary in both typical and a-typical children.

Supporting bilingual children with language delay

There are number of simple strategies that you can start to use to work with the children to improve their communication.

  • use the child’s name to gain their attention
  • simplify your language and keep sentences short and to the point
  • use the 10 second rule to allow children additional time to process what you have said and respond
  • use visual aids to support the child’s understanding
  • model speech back to the child and expand on what they have said.


Carla Cornelius is a Special Educational Needs Consultant and Trainer who has worked in early years education for the past 17 years, supporting settings to embrace the principles of inclusive practice.

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