Bilingual babies and toddlers don’t talk

One thing we never really considered when we moved to France was how our children would cope with growing up in a bilingual environment. With hardly a sentence of French between us, let alone any first hand experience of bilingualism, we just assumed that their language skills would develop as normal – but in two languages.

The advantages of being bilingual, in terms of cognitive development are well documented, however, what is not well documented is the language development process/milestones that lead to bilingualism. So when our two year old turned silent … we started to worry.

Endless searches on the web revealed all sorts of information that was predominantly based upon a parental-language relationship (i.e. mum speaking one language, dad speaking another). Our immigrant situation – one language at home, another language outside – did not seem to get a look in. So we decided to take medical advice, and the Doctor referred us to a (monolingual French speaking) speech therapist – who simply shrugged and admitted that she had no idea as to why junior wasn’t talking. [All the same she’d like to see him every week for the next six months!]

What we, and the none-too-bright therapist, didn’t realise was that normal speech development milestones for a monolingual child do not apply for bilingual children. According to an American study, which we finally found on the NCELA website, there is a phase that bilingual children go through:

“When everyone around the child is speaking a different language, there are only two options: to speak the language they already know, or to stop speaking entirely.”

After almost a year of silence our worries are finally over; and now at three years old, our son is finally talking again, and his language skills (in both French and English) are developing by the day. All we have to worry about now is him turning into a smart-alec-clever-clogs before he reaches maturity.

I have extracted some of the more interesting parts of the NCELA study for you to read here (if you’re interested).


  1. As a speech and language therapist myself, I have to comment on your statement that “normal speech development milestones for a monolingual child do not apply for bilingual children”. That is not technically true: if a child learns 2 languages from birth, the developmental stages should be the same in each language. That is, for a bilingual child, the milestones are reached at approximately the same time in BOTH languages as they would be reached by a monolingual child in their ONLY language. The only exceptions are when a child has a language disorder or when they have more exposure to one language than to the other.

    With that said, your child was not learning both languages from birth. Your therapist should probably have picked up on the normalcy of the silent period when suddenly a new language was presented. But in my experience working in the schools (in an area where many children have no exposure to English before full-time English school) there are loads of children who never go through the silent period. It depends on personality… those reckless risk-takers have an advantage in this regard because they will dive in and speak the language, even with wonky grammar. 🙂

  2. The report concurs with both our experiences: “Some children go through a prolonged nonverbal stage, sometimes lasting for a year or more, whereas other children pass through this stage so quickly they seem to have rejected this strategy altogether.” Which would suggest that the milestones themselves are somewhat flexible.

    But you are right – he wasn’t learning two languages from birth, in fact he was introduced to French at six months, and only when he began at the halte garderie (when he was two) did he need to start speaking it. So he went silent.

    It was only this report (which we found approximately a year too late) that suggested his silence was in any way normal.

    The fact is that this report shows that there are four distinct types of pre-school bilingualism. The type you are experiencing appears to be that of type 3 or 4. We put our particular experience down to type 2 (according to Tabors and Snow).

    i.e. rather than dealing with a disorder, or an unbalanced exposure to one language or the other, we were simply dealing with a lack of motivation.

    (and I’m sure it will be the same story when he becomes a teenager!)

  3. As another speechie, I agree with KCampbell! I have also worked in schools where there are many children with no exposure to English before they start and who subsequently go through as ‘silent period’. Your speech therapist should really have known about that!

    She should also have considered the other reasons that a child might lose language skills (including autism – not that I’m saying your child is autistic, of course!).

    Did you go and see Madame l’Orthophoniste every week for 6 months in the end? If so, I would love to know what kind of therapy she did.

    By the way, I have just discovered your blog via Mya (Missing you already) so will now check out a few more of your posts!

    All the best!

  4. Nice blog by the way.
    Don’t worry about the delays. Many children who grow up in multilingual environments decide to take a little extra time to “get things straight in their heads” before they start to speak. It is not uncommon for them to be a little late with starting to speak. Here in the Alsace, this is a known phenomenon! Actually, it’s a good sign as it means they truly have integrated 2 distict languages before starting to use them. Note, however, that as you are concerned about their language skills and and the delay in their starting to speak, you transmit your “angoisses/angst” and this results in a delay too. Doctors do not like to say this as they fear losing a customer.
    Be careful with the term “bilingual” though, this is not a simple word. No one is truly bilingual, we all have a mother tongue. Catalans who have gone out of their way to raise a child truly bilingual Spanish/Catalan discovered that their child’s choice of first friend at nursrey school and the language they chose to converse in tipped the subtle balance between mother tongue and second language whist still in a linguistically formative age – this was sometimes a disappointment to the parents!

  5. Stratford Girl & K Campbell – when you say ‘school’ what age groups are you talking about – 2 and 3 year-olds, as in our experience? Or 5 and 6 year-olds?

    Because I don’t think you can truly compare the two age groups in terms of simultaneous language development.

    We decided to give the therapist the boot, and simply try to be less anxious about the whole thing. As canukh suggests, our own angst and willingness to humour non-verbal communication may have been equally to blame for the slow development.

  6. Hi

    This is a really interesting topic. We moved to Strasbourg 2 years ago (I am a Rostbif and my girlfriend a Breton). We are considering having kids here and our friends have one due. I sent them the link to this blog!

    We have discussed this topic before between friends and heard about this ‘silent’ period…or the refusal to speak one of the two languages. Only time will tell eh!


    Ritchie Huxley

  7. I suppose I was referring to ANY child who has previously been exposed solely to one language and then is put in an environment where they suddenly hear an unfamiliar language. That can be children of any age, really, but is most common in children starting nursery (3 or 4) and school (4 or 5).

    As an aside, there is also a phenomenon known as ‘subtractive bilingualism’, which is where a child is exposed to a new language and then subsequently loses their first language as everyone stops speaking their first langauge to them. This is really bad for language development, as effectively they are starting from the beginning again (sort of).

    In spite of tons of research saying that people should speak to their child in the language(s) they are best at when they move to a new country, you’d be surprised how many people stop speaking their own language and start speaking the language of country they have moved to. This can be because they perceive the language of the country to have higher status, or (wrongly) believe that having two languages will slow the child down/ confuse them somehow when they start school.

    For example, I recently saw a family who had stopped speaking Lingala to their children and started using English instead. The parents were actually really rubbish at English so the child got a really dodgy language model at home. He also had a language disorder on top of everything else so it was a real nightmare and his language development was really slowed by the fact that his Lingala input ceased completely.

    I am waffling… I’m glad that things have worked out OK for your son in the end.

  8. The problem we have now is that our son is speaking all the time – though it is impossible to understand 90% of what he is saying.

    Things have been complicated by the introduction of German/Alsatian into his vocabulary – and now he appears to be switching between three languages!

    We are however about to spend a month in the UK, where he’ll be exposed to just one language for the first time in his life. My mother owns a playgroup too – so he’ll get to rub shoulders with some proper Anglophone children five days a week. We have high hopes, but who knows, every child is different.

  9. Hi,
    I am interested in this topic as well. I am an american living in Brazil. I have a 9 year old daughter and a 22 month old daughter. We moved here close to two years ago. My (then) seven year old who was fluent and at ease with English did not speak Port. not even one word for 6 months or so. We feel that the ‘school’ environment was a little overwhelming. What helped the most was when she made a friend of a neighbor girl. They played a lot together spending hours in the park and in their rooms playing dolls. Having this ‘non threatening’ environment plus tons of ‘real’ activities for her to associate the words with was great. After this her portuguese began to improve and now, two years later she is fluent, scoring above her class averages in a brazilian school, and the most interesting thing is that she speaks without an accent. No one believes she is not brazilian. Our American friends whose kids only attend school but do not have brazilian ‘friends’ to play with have a much harder time. Our baby on the other hand is speaking a quite interesting mix of Port. and Eng. She will say, “Eu quero a cookie.” (I want a cookie) I have no idea how this will resolve. We speak English at home and she goes to a preschool for 3 hours a day and hear Port. She is not shy in either language and tends to choose the word she likes ‘best’ to use for something. For example she says “agua” not “water” but “cookie” not ” bolacha”. Her animals are also a mixture. Another funny point. My oldest daughter is using portuguese structures in her English (which is grammatically wrong) and making up English words that do not exist by trying to make a literal translation from Portuguese. My husband is Argentinian but always speaks English at home. His English has its own idiosyncrasies that now have even rubbed off on me! It was great to hear the stories of someone raising a bilingual child who is mixing everything up! I suppose it sorts itself eventually…but I wonder…

    Bye for now ,


  10. I am living in Spain and my daughter 25months goes to nursery- she has for about nine months- interesting to hear in last post , chooses to use the words she likes best- zumos for juice- agua not water and gracias not thanks- I am not worried about it all working out- but know in the future will have to work on her English- I just need to make sure I am fluent before she is !

  11. Hi!
    I am living in Michigan-US. My husband and I are Albanians. We have a 2 1/2 year old son. At home we speak strictlly Albanian, but he also goes to the day care 5 days a week. He is saying about 50 words. He can understand both languages, but he is not speaking either one of them, except words here and there. I started to worry, even though i talked to a speach therapist, and she recomended me to hold done a little longer, and see what will it happen. Any other suggestion!?

  12. Hi Antoneta,

    The thing that worked best for us was spending a month in the UK – and sending him to a local playgroup five days a week. This helped him to recognise a ‘value’ in speaking English (the language of his strange parents), and demonstrated that other children actually speak it too.

    Since then his language, certainly in English, has progressed massively. How his French compares I have no idea – but at least we can communicate with him now.

    We did this when he was 3 years and three months. The first time he said ‘Mummy’ was shortly after he turned three.

    So, if you can spend some quality time in Albania in the next six months – I am sure it will help speed things along.

  13. Hi, I am very late to the party but want to say thanks for such an interestinmg discussion. I am english and married to a dane and we have a 27 month old daughter, we both speak english with her but for the last month she has started nursery in danish and there has been a little regression with her english, she is not really forming sentences right now but is understanding more and more danish everyday. She speaks all day but in her own language which sounds more and more danish so I am sure once she has the words she will not stop talking! I was expecting a silent period but maybe because she got a nursery place at a younger age than expected she is going to adapt a little quicker? Or maybe it is her personality to want to speak so much lol!

  14. Hey!

    Thank you all for the valuable inputs. We are Indians. Our Mother Tongue is Tamil, but, as we are located at Mumbai, our 25 months old son is exposed to 3 languages in all, everyday – Tamil, English and Hindi. He perfectly understands all 3 languages, and a bit of Kannada also thrown in (I’m from Karnataka)- even complicated sentences, but, I think he is in a confusion as to which language he should speak back to us in!

    He is yet to start talking intellegibly. But, when we approached his Paedetrician, he asked us not to be unduly worried, as every child will develop at his own pace, and that as he understands all commands (even spelling of water!) and enjoys music etc., we don’t need to unecessarily worry! I would like your inputs also on this.

  15. My son is 22 months old and still not talking, a lot of noise and gibberish but not any real speech. I speak a mix of English and Arabic with him, and my husband and the grandparents all speak Arabic with him, he also watches English cartoons. He understands everything we tell him and he points at whatever we ask him to point at (in both English and Arabic), but just not interested in speaking. I read on a couple sites that bilinguals really start talking at around 3 instead of around 2 like monolingual kids. I’m not really worried yet, just impatient 😀 I also read that he’ll suddenly have a verbal burst with non-stop speech with all the vocab he’s been retaining… we’ll see. Thanks for the article 😀

  16. Thanks for the support!
    Living in USA, we speak Spanish at home but my 27 month old watches English TV and libraries, parks, gym and other activities she does are mostly in english.
    Pediatrician, Language Specialists and her Speech Therapist confirmed she had a speech delay, so I’m taking her to speech therapy once a week as recommended.
    All the language experts say there’s no reason for speech delay in bilingual kids (they’re not bilingual themselves). But bilingual parents experiences tells otherwise. All my bilingual friends have the same problem and their kids have been diagnosed the same.
    I’m not worried. I motivate my daughter to speak and read as much as possible for her age. We have never done baby-talk at home and I’m positive she’ll catch up later with both languages. But therapists and bossy grandmas can make you feel unsure sometimes.
    Good Luck eveyone!

  17. Hello
    delighted to see this debate. My husband and I live in London and have found a great Nursery we’d like to send our daugter to 3 days a week The only problem is that it would all be through French and I am a bit worried when I read other posts talking of language delays, silent periods etc. She is just one year old and while I would love her to be proficient in a second language I dont want her to be a social experiment! She is outgoing, very vocal and has a few words so I don’t know if this would throw her off course….any comments??

  18. Hi Michele, and thanks for the comment.

    Personally I would say that although bilingualism is great to encourage, I’d have trouble with sending my child to a foreign language nursery, unless there was going to be some future relationship with that language – on a permanent basis. (i.e. that you have French speaking family & friends, or intend to live in a French speaking region) Without some real-life connection to the language I think the child would not value the exposure.

    If she is anything like our first child (who was exposed to French from six months) – then it could result in her not speaking at all while she works out what’s going on.

  19. Hi all,

    Just like any worried mom over a speech delayed child I was googling on this topic and found a valuable discussion on this site.

    I have a 2yr 8m old Son.Our mother tongue is Tamil. We live in USA. He has started going to a playschool where the medium is English.
    Our pediatrician found him with a speech delay, and he is getting early intervention from May 2009. He has started using single words like shoe,come,go, and some Tamil words like amma, appa, papa, vanakkam, etc consistently. But no 2 words together yet.He comprehends both tamil and english well.But doesn’t try to reply to the questions asked at him.
    When we were in India in Apr 2009, a pediatrician there said he could have a minor tongue tie situation, if operated he could speak fluently then after. But when we discussed it with our pediatrician in US she didn’t find it a problem as my son could thrusts his tongue out fully.She just wanted him to go thru’ early intervention speech therapy.

    Now since he is going to be 3yrs soon, the early intervention program wants him to go to a special pre-school from 3yrs old.Will that help him to speak? I wonder.
    Is there anyone out there with their kid going to a special preschool? has that helped your kid? will I be able to put my kid back in a public school from 4yrs once he goes to a special school?

  20. Thank you for this post. My family and I have recently moved to Strasbourg from Canada with our 28 month old daughter. Brought up until now as an anglophone in an English-speaking household (and city), her speech development has been very strong. We didn’t push, her language development just came very naturally. She began speaking at an early age (first word at 7 months) and has been speaking in sentences since 18 months! She is typically very social and can express herself very well verbally. I am a stay-at-home mother, so she is not exposed to a french-speaking day care, but I have noticed a drastic change in her play and social behaviour with other children at parks and with friendly adults we meet out and about. We have only been in France for a month, but I have begun to notice that her usual social and friendly demeanor is changing in favour of a silent, shy and reserved personality. I have been teaching her some things in French as she was constantly running up to other children saying, “Hi, what’s your name?” only to be stared at. I’ve tried speaking for her at the playground, by modeling what to say, such as, “Salut, quel est ton nom?”, but now she doesn’t speak a word to anyone but mummy and daddy. She even holds her mouth closed in a tight way, with lips pursed while she looks on and plays by herself. We have no reason to ensure that she learns French (as we will only be in France for a total of 7 months), though I want her to be able to engage with other kids and not suppress her lovely personality. I’m so worried about the lasting effects of this “once in a lifetime opportunity to live abroad in France”… is it worth it for our child? I have tried to find an English-speaking playgroup, but have not had any luck, are you aware of any in the area? Or any places/websites I may visit to find one? Or do you have any other suggestions from your own experience?

    Thank you,

  21. Hi Melanie,

    You’ve come to the right place. The Americans in Alsace organise a weekly playgroup for Anglophone Mums with preschool children. It’s usually every friday morning and hosted by a different ‘mom’ each time.

    If you join now you’ll just be in time to swap recipies for thanksgiving.


  22. Hi there,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading through all of your experiences. I would appreciate some advice on mine:
    I have EMT, but had my daughter in France with a French man. There I spoke with her in English only, and was with her most of the time apart from when she went to nursery etc (8hrs max p/wk). Everybody else spoke with her in French, family, friends etc. She understood me but made young toddler/baby noises in French. She was very shy when English speakers spoke to her.
    We left France when she was 20 months old, without her father to live in a very English town in the UK.
    At first I spoke some French with her (I had before when with friends, family in three way conversations (“its time to go to bed” etc. anyway) but when she started nursery she fell completely silent for about 6 months.
    With this she was quite frustrated, particuarly with me speaking French, however still preferred her old favourite books, DVDs etc.
    When she began speaking it was quickly in full sentances and although I had stopped to a degree, when I tried to speak with her in French she told me I was “talking funny/silly”.
    We have all, in the UK tried to encourage her French, by reading to her, singing to her and watching DVDs etc with her, but she has seemed blase to it, pretending either not to hear or to forget what has been said, or not to understand. I have employed adult french speakers to come round to play to continue making it fun, but now aged nearly 5 it seems that actually she does not understand any more than someone who would not have had the exposure she has had.

    Next year, when she will be 5 1/2 we will be returing to France for one year, for my work. We will not be with old friends or family (in a different part of the country) and my daughter will go to school there.

    I wonder if any of you have had a similar experience to this?
    I fell it is not of any real consequence as it is only for a year and at such a young age, but worry a bit for her reading and writing accquisition. (She is already reading in English, though the bottom of her class).
    What effects might this subtractive bilingualism have on returning her second language and her literacy in English?
    Any thoughts?
    Many thanks for your time.

    • Hi Nina,

      It sounds to me like you’re dealing with a motivation issue more than anything. Your daughter sees no reason to speak French – even if she understands it. It is not her ‘survival’ language – she knows she can get by in English, so why bother?

      To motivate her – you’re either going to have to have a real French person in the house – or spend a lot more time in France.


  23. I’m so glad to see this! We moved to Turkey when my daughter was 5.5 months old and now, 13 months later, she still only says “mama,” “dada,” and “nite nite.” I read blogs and facebook statuses of friends back in the States and all their children who are either the same age as my daughter or slightly younger are all talking up a storm! My in-laws are worried sick that she has a speech delay. And I keep trying to tell myself that she understands us, communicates to us in sign language (about 30 signs), and that she’s just not ready to talk yet. So I’m glad to hear from someone else that just because your kid in a bilingual situation (just like ours…not bilingual in the home, but an immigrant situation) isn’t talking at the “normal” age of 18 months to 2 years doesn’t mean that they’re actually speech delayed. I’ll continue trying to be patient!

    • Our first didn’t say ‘Mummy’ until he was three years old. Now six, he is fluent in English and (at a push) French. He still has confidence issues – but that’s a result of the environment. He sees other bilingual kids (who have at least one French parent or daily child-minder) being able to converse freely in two languages without hindrance. When he’s older he’ll realise that what he has achieved is truly amazing – as we already do!

  24. This was helpful, thanks. My 17mo understands both english and italian but he only says a handful of words. I didn’t start him on the italian until he was around 9 months old, so that could be it.

  25. It’s very interesting to hear how varied all of your experiences have been! I am French-American (brought up mostly in the US and always spoke French at home, though all my schooling was in English). My husband is English and has school-level and holidays-abroad french. We now live in New Zealand and have a 3.5yo daughter. We have always spoken French to her at home and she has been in child care for 25 hours per week since she was 9 months old. At her centre, they speak English and some te reo (Maori).
    Our experience is this: My daughter spoke French first and almost exclusively until about 2.5 years of age. Then she started to speak some English at her Montessori and now her English has fairly caught up to that of her peers. She has a terribly whiney and annoying voice in English and her vocabulary is not as advanced as in French, probably because most of her English is spoken in the child care setting and most of her French is spoken to adults. In French, she has a lovely voice and has an extensive vocabulary and is generally a lovely child. When she wants to be a horrid 3-year old, she must use English because she doesn’t know how to say “Leave me alone!” or “Get off!” in French since those are not things she hears at home. My mother says I was the same and not to worry – my adult voice is not whiney and annoying (so I’ve been assured!).
    What has intrigued me is that my daughter will adjust her accent to speak to her father (the non-native French speaker). She goes so far as to make the types of errors in her speaking that he makes: mixing up masculine and feminine pronouns, incorrectly conjugating verbs, pronouncing “r” in English rather than French. She has done this since about a year ago. With me and any other French speakers, she sounds pretty much French i.e. no English accent, no gender mix-ups, and near perfect conjugation, with self-correction as needed.
    Do anyone else’s children adjust their accents to suit a parent??

    • Hi Kim – interesting post! Our eldest prefers not to speak French to us – partly because we have trouble understanding him, but that’s because we have no experience of playground parlance and he gets frustrated when we ask him to repeat himself (as if he was at fault). His French is near perfect of course. What we do find odd though is that, because English and French handwriting are taught differently at school, he writes in different typefaces for each language. Print for English and cursive for French. As a result his English handwriting is untidy and sometimes illegible while his French cursive is beautiful. No matter how many times we suggest he write in cursive for both languages – he seems unable to completely separate the writing style from the language…

  26. Hi Englishman – interesting about the writing and I think it’s great he is learning both! It may be clearer to him which letters match which sounds in which language that way too?
    My daughter is in Montessori and we are doing joined-up letters at home while they do print at school. Apparently the joined-up/cursive is much easier as loops are easier to control than straights and angles, so as your son’s fine motor skills improve, so will his print. I was wondering if my daughter would do the same – use print for English and joined-up for French, though it’s obviously too early to know at three and a half. I also think (from memory) the French schooling system places more emphasis on writing practice, and repetition in general.
    My daughter doesn’t even listen when I speak English – she’ll ask me what I am saying, even though she could understand perfectly well if she bothered to listen. It’s as if her brain shuts off completely. She does the same with her father, even though his English is much better than his French. More and more of her imaginary play is getting interspersed with English, mostly because she is replaying situations from school, but when we get invited into the game, it’s always in French. To be honest, it’s nice because I was worried there would be so much English around her that she wouldn’t see any need for the French and my expectations were quite low of her picking up the French much at all, but she still speaks exclusively French to us.

  27. And as an aside – it’s probably good that he prints in English. Many english people don’t seem to be able to read french cursive very well anyway, my husband included! He hates being asked to read “Petit Ours Brun” because he can’t figure out half of the words (and he seems to have a strong dislike for the character anyway so it certainly doesn’t help!).

  28. This conversation is a God-send! My husband and I have been in Germany for almost 2 years with our 3 1/2 year old son. We are English speakers (from the Caribbean), and our son started attending “bilingual” English/German day care when he was 2 years old. He was saying just a few words of English before we arrived (so a bit of a late talker). All the teachers and children in the kindergarten speak German, while a few members of staff speak solely English to the kids, although they are not native English speakers. There is also quite a mix of styles of English spoken (American, Irish and German-school). After a year, our son has gathered many single words and two-word commands in both languages. In large groups he seems to keep to himself, but when we are with him with a single playmate, he plays very well, despite the language barrier. He says some sentences to us in English that have been memorized. Now the teachers are concerned that he may have a developmental problem, and have even used the A-word (autism). I am curious as to how things are with your son now Englishman… Your experience sounds a little similar to ours 🙂

    • Hi Lala. Things worked out fine. He’s now nine years old and fluent in both languages. He is though quite shy and has difficulty making friends, a problem which may stem from his language difficulties in earlier life, I’m not sure. However the thing that now concerns us most is his capacity for maths!

      • hi all,

        I am a Hungarian speaker, my sons father is Romanian speaker however we live in England with my 16 year old daughter who speaks fluent all three languages and our 29months son. Me and my daughter are speaking Hungarian to my son, his dad speaks Romanian to him. He seem to do very well till last August when he started day-care. He suddenly stopped saying words in Hungarian and Romanian. He just said mommy and daddy in our own languages, but since he was introduced to day-care where he hears 8-9hours daily only English, he stopped saying any other words besides the above 2.
        I am a bit worried, as he understands and does what he is asked to do in any of these 3 languages, but he is not saying proper words. However, he talks all day long his own language, despite the fact I have told him many times that he do not need a language nobody understands. 🙂
        He is not shy in the nursery and not shy at home. He just do not want to say anything.
        I am a little disappointed, as my daughter was born as well in a foreign country, at home we were speaking Hungarian, in the nursery she was speaking Romania, She never confused the 2 languages, she learned the English in 3 months, now she is doing her maths and science GCSEs on higher. I just do not know what is going on in my sons head…

      • Once your son started speaking again, how long was the language development from the single words to full sentences? At what age was he able to hold a conversation with you?

  29. That’s great to hear that he is fluent in both languages now. Of course, with any kid, after one challenge comes another. Keep up the good parenting work… You’ve certainly given me, and others, much encouragement for the present challenge.

  30. Interesting conversation. In response to Kry, your son seems to have a problem of motivation. By the sounds of it, he’s focusing all of his energy at the moment on learning the language of the land he’s fallen into, which is a very clever survival-strategy. And, because he hasn’t got it all straight in his head yet, he’s speaking a strange other-language (probably a mix of all 3). He might well be wondering, “why speak these two other languages (that hardly anyone else is speaking) when my parents and sister speak perfect English?” Young children are not sensitive to the abstract benefits of learning multiple languages – they are, above, energy-savers. The way that I resolved this problem with my children: from the very first moment of resistance, I refused to understand them when they spoke to me in French (the language of their home and father). Faced with this dead-end, they very quickly reverted to what was then the easier path, which was to speak to me in English. Make it a rule. At first, you have to be a little vigilant; it’s very easy to not notice that they are speaking the “other” language. But, once the habit is in place (for both of you), it’s quite easy to maintain.

    As has been said above, be careful not to try to transmit a “dead” language. Try to find other children for him to play with in Hungarian and Romanian. Children are very open to moving images and sound: have him watch films/cartoons in those languages, listen to bedtime/cartime stories and songs on CD. And probably most importantly, have him spend time in the countries with family/native speakers so that he can see that they are real languages spoken by many many real people.

    Finally, (sorry to be writing a book here) there are many misconceptions out there concerning language acquisition. Before having children, I had always heard that young children are language “sponges”, who have the capacity to pick up multiple languages in no time with no effort, never mixing the two. And, there is always that child in one’s vicinity who seems to fit that description (like your daughter!). But, from experience, it isn’t always that simple. But, when one’s child doesn’t fit the description, one naturally begins to worry. As with other qualities, children have differing aptitudes with regards to language acquisition. For example, some are, by nature, little mimics, eager to please and enter into communication. Others are more introspective, non-verbal, more preoccupied by their other sensual experience of life. Both will have to make many mistakes before they have mastered one or several languages. But, at the end of the day – sooner or later – they will both learn. I wonder if one isn’t doing a far greater favour by exposing the child who has greater difficulties with language acquisition to languages early on in life than the other child, who might find learning a new language at 12 years old quite easy ?

    • Alexandra, I totally appreciate your final paragraph of comments! Englishman made reference to a study in his original post, which I think parents and, more importantly, educators should be more aware of when dealing with children in a bi- or multi-lingual environment. Basically, the age at which a child is introduced to a new language, together with the level of exposure to any language and the general temperament of a child, influences how quickly they begin to speak in whatever languages they are exposed to.
      My experience with my son so far made me also have the sense that being forced to have to use that part of his brain from very young will make it easier for him to learn other languages as he gets older. Otherwise, he seems like one to try to find the least strenuous option to get things done. But being bi- or multi-lingual is a useful skill, that should not be reserved for people who just have a desire or knack for it.

  31. Hi,

    I’ve just found this post although it was written a good few years ago, so excuse my late response. I’m a Polish mum of a two year old, who is … bilingual? trilingual? Alex was born in London and I used Polish with him, he got English from my roommate, playgroups, TV. (I’m a single parent so there was no father). When Alex was 1, I moved to Bangkok, where I work as an ESL teacher. I started using both Polish and English to expose him to both languages, his nanny speaks Thai and some very, very basic English, that sounds almost like another language. He’s now 2 years and 3 months and doesn’t talk. A few months ago he started saying first words (blue, green, tree, moo) however since that time he didn’t learn any new words. He also stopped using them. At the moment I use practically only English, we have Cbeebies channel and my English roommate lives with us, so we communicate in English. He makes noises, sometimes I’ve got impression he tells me something in his own language, can imitate animal sounds really well.

    I was OK to wait until now, hearing the stories about speech delay in bilingual kids I knew I had to be patient. But I started to worry and I’m thinking about seeing a speech therapist, though it’s going to be a mission. Do you know anything about such situation? Any links/articles/websites?

    Many thanks in advance

    • Our son didn’t say Mummy until he was 3 years old – sounds like you’ve got a similar late developer… In our experience what you need to do is find a way to motivate him to speak. He needs to find a reason to communicate in words. Interaction and play with english kids is the preferable if not the only solution. Dealing with adults who can interpret his whines/groans/noises will not persuade him that learning languages is worthwhile – however if a child swipes his toy – he’s going to think about it more seriously!

  32. Thank you for your post!

    We are Romanian and we brought our 2 m.o to England. There we only spoke with him in English and he was otherwise very little exposed to English (he watched/likes some English songs, cartoons).

    He is now 21 m.o and he only says “da” meaning yes in Romanian. He understand perfectly and does a lot of things when told to. He never replies. He used to say some other words like mom, water (in Romanian as well) but not anymore.

    The problem is, we moved from England to Germany a couple of weeks ago. Neither of us speaks German and we are planning on signing him up for nursery at least 2-3h/day in the hope he will get acquainted with the language.

    Will it confuse him even further or will it help him, I wonder? Should I try speaking to him in English as well as Romanian or try and learn together German?

    Thanks in advance for your reply,


    • Hi Julie, I’m no expert but I would say it will confuse the hell out of him for a few days. But unless there is some major English influence in your lives I think you’d do well to let him forget what he’s learned in English and refocus on speaking Romanian and German. Trying to maintain a language that has no practical daily use will just demotivate him. It would be like asking me to blog in Latin…

  33. Hello,
    I really need some help in pointing me in the right direction.
    My son just turn 3yrs old this August. He does not speak much.
    There’s only only certain little words he says.. My sons goes to a baby sitter everyday,for about 9hours a day. Now my baby sitter speaks only Spanish. At home we speak Spanglish (Spanish/English), my son will speak a few words in Spanish and a few in English but its only wen he wants too. I am super scared that he’s not going to talk by the time he has to go to preschool. IS This normal ??? What type of therapy should he be in and where do I start??

  34. Hi, First I want to say thanks from the deep of my heart for the information shared over the blog thanks to you all, you can understand how much it helps parents worrying about their child not speaking.

    I know I am being bit repetitive here but our 26 month son has gone silent in similar fashion, when he was about 1 year old he use to speak mama, dada, dadi etc Hindi words and use to repeat the words as we say but then around 18 months he completely stopped saying words and started buzzing “mmmm” “nnnn”. Only thing which we can think of changed in environment around him is that he started enjoying nursery rhymes and Baby tv in English. He does everything as if he understands dances and shouts, runs from one room to another if his favorite program comes on tv but never says a single full word in either Hindi or English even if we repeat in front of him.
    We have put him to nursery which he enjoys but still silent, his keyworker says he enjoys and explores alone and does not try to interact with other kids.
    We are desperately trying both languages with him at home in the hope whichever he picks but at the moment looks like he is not interested in speaking at all.

    Our GP says he is just 2 and we should give him some more time but experts please advice is it worrying ? Shall we go back to India to give him single language environment, afterall nothing more than our kid, Kindly suggest.

  35. Hi, I really like you blog and its very comforting to foreign parents like us. Thank you for setting this blog and sharing your experiences.
    We have been through similar ordeal, sleepless nights of what was wrong with our daughter. Matter of fact she had all what Bhanwar mentioned above. Its seems like one of the common things among foreigners here in the US especially among students.
    Since our daughter was not speaking any meaning full words by 2.5 yrs (just gibberish) we decided to see a pediatrician. And to our nightmare the pediatrician told us that she has autism. We fell apart, dreams shattered into pieces and then we started speech therapy. Now 9 months down the road she can speak gazillions of words in english and in our native language. Thats was all fine but the sentences is not coming yet. And we are still despaired although not as much.
    Now she is in school, likes to be around kids jumps and runs with them. She is very quick learner and an explorer. We cant hide and do things from her, she will just figure out how we did it. As we see, she never had social connection problem with parents and her peers although she just ignores strangers.
    One prime concern that still remains is she appears to be very lazy to speak and is not very talkative (I mean in terms of conversation although she sings rhymes all the time) and we fear that she may regress what ever language skill she has acquired.
    I would really appreciate if you could share your thoughts.

  36. I’m so glad to find more ppl who had faced similar situation like mine. This has given me some hope. We moved to London when my son had turned 18 months. I started taking him to a play school at ard 20 months of age. He used to speak a lot of words till that age but after I started going to this play school he stopped. The change in language completely shocked him. He is trilingual. Almost 3 now and not talking. He went silent at almost 2 years of age.

  37. Hi, I would like to have your recommendation as I am going insane. I have a 3year old girl and our mother tounge is Arabic and a month ago we travelled to work at an English speaking country. I enrolled her with a good school (3-4toddlers class) and I frankly informed them that she doesn’t know English at all and that all what she knows are few colours, counts 1-5, aand few animals name in English. I was assured by the headmistress that she will catch up quickly and that I shouldn’t get worried.She started a week now and I do feel that she is stressed with the whole new environment. She started rejecting going to the toilet and she wees and misses up every day at school and even at home . Her direct teacher doesn’t feel optimistic about it all because when I told her that she doesn’t know English I saw a look on her face that scared me and when ever I ask I’d she thinks that my girl will coupe she says “I hope” and she reports almost every day on what my girl can’t do like painting and she said ” how old is your child coz she doesn’t have the painting in her”!. I am so worried about my girl coz she simply started mimicking and make her own new language that is English like plus the toilet rejection. Do you think she will catch or should I let her into a lower class or should I push more by working with her at home…. Sorry I dragged the thread but I appreciate your responses

    • Hi Sara, I’m not sure what to suggest. Your little girl is obviously finding it all very stressful. However she is only 3! Our first child didn’t talk at all before 3 – and we were very worried about him starting school at that age. Play time with native speaking english kids at home might be a way to make her feel more comfortable with the language. I think just give it time and things will work out.

      • Hi there
        Thus is a bit of a desperate shot in the dark. I live in Brazil with my wife and son who is 2 years and 4 months. We are now both very concerned, he babble a lot and has a vocabulary of between 20 and 30 words in both English and Portuguese. I’m with him during the day so he mainly gets English, when my wife returns from work she speaks to him in Portuguese, obviously all other interaction is also in Portuguese so exposure is pretty much 50/50. He isn’t seeming to progress alot, when he plays with other kids he seems a little more detached and almost refuses to say certain things for example his own name which he has never said. At this point my wife wishes to see a speech therapist and more worringly another Doctor to rule out any form of autism. Any advice????

        • Hi Lee, There’s nothing I can say that I haven’t said in previous comments. Your son is still very young and lacks the motivation to speak. Our son didn’t speak until 3 and even now (he’s 10) is still quite introverted. I think some boys find bilingualism a bit of a trial, whereas girls will find any excuse to talk – no matter what the language.

  38. Hi,

    Our problem is similar but not quite the same. Both my husband and I are Hungarian, but right before our first child was born, we moved to Brussels. For the past 6 years we have been in a French-speaking environment. When our daughter went to creche at about 2,5 just to get aquainted with others and be a little more independent before baby no2, she felt ok and was always happy to go but never said a word. We did not worry as she spoke beautifully in her mother tongue and spent only 2-3 hours in another language environment. Then we had to move to Strasbourg a year later, and at pre-school (maternelle) she did not speak either. It was never the city or the place, nor the teacher, she accepted them all and was always eager to go in the morning, but would stay silent throughout the day. When she started being punished for her silence, we moved her out and put her into the European School in the English section. At first it was the new language, which she masters quite well after almost two years. She is shy and calm, yet she loves people in general, she is optimistic and happy, a little bit too good I’d say. But she never speaks. Sometimes her teachers or friends have the feeling that she is almost ready to say something, then is is stopped and the words stay inside. The psychologist says she is selectively mute and we are desperate to find someone who can help her because she is so clever, so beautiful, so adorable, so sensitive, so lovable. Does anyone know of a specialist here in Starsbourg? Please, help us somehow .

  39. Hi, The same situation for son its exposed to 3 language…my mother tongue is Spanish. his father speak English and between us son start to talk when we was 3..and put words together around 4 years he is almost 5 and speak just english, but very under the average if compared with kids growing in a monolingual environment. The test from the psychologist show a big delay… (The test who the psychologist made are test for monolingual kids so its no very helpful to me). He is a happy little boy and i am sure everything will fall in place when he start kindergarten..
    I am sure than boys have more difficulties than girls, my daugther its 20 months and speak tons of words and phrases,
    As you can see my english is bad but right now i am talking english with him since he chose english to communicate, probably its wrong to do this but i am just trying to help him.
    Thank you for share your experience.

  40. Dear Barth,

    I hope you and your family are well.

    I am just trying to find the article you referred to, at the beginning of this post, but the NCELA website came up with too many hits for the search subject and I cannot find the exact document.

    Would you still have it with you and, if so, would you mind letting us know the full title, so I can find it and read more about the research they have made, please?

    Thank you very much for your help! We are just trying to understand what is going on with our now silent 21 months old bilingual toddler.

    Thank you!

  41. Hello there.

    We’re in the Vosges. I’m American (the wife) and my husband is French. Our 18-month-old first born son doesn’t say any words with meaning except “mama” and “papa.” He has said “good” for a very long time but not necessarily using it correctly. We suspect he says “caca” when he’s going…

    Anyway I just watched a couple videos of other 18 month olds talking and I’m shocked at how many words they say! Is this probably a normal result of being in a bilingual household or is there perhaps a problem? I know, you’re just a parent too, but why not leave a comment asking…

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