Speaking In More Than One Language

Share This Blog Post

Picture of Herra Park

Herra Park

Speaking In More Than One Language

Hello, 안녕하세요, ciao, salut, xin chào – Speaking in more than one language

As our country continues to increase its multicultural population, it is important to consider our Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) clients and families. Speech and language difficulties are also present in children who speak more than one language. Bilingualism is a wonderful asset living on this increasingly connected planet. However, sometimes bilingualism creates a number of worries and concerns about what is best for a child’s language development, especially when they are late talkers.

We want the best for our kids. But there is so much conflicting information about bilingual language development. Some of it is based on myths that are not supported by the evidence or old ideas. This makes it hard for parents to make informed decisions about important issues for their children, such as the choice to expose their children to both English and their family’s heritage language.

This blog is going to take a dive into what is bilingualism, the benefits of using more than one language, and the speech pathology approach when a child is having difficulties developing language.

What is Bilingualism?

Bilingualism is the ability to understand and speak two languages. Multilingualism is also a common term used to describe the ability to understand and speak two or more languages. The 2016 Australian Census found that a third of the population was born overseas and around 20% of Australians spoke a language other than English at home. As well as our CALD population, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people bring diversity in culture and language.

Benefits of bilingualism

Learning and practising English and another language at home does not confuse the child, but instead has great benefits for their development.

  • Personal and Social – Bilingualism allows for socialisation/ communication with more people, wider access to resources and literature, and more engagement with people and places during overseas travel.
  • Cultural – Through language, children are able to better understand and connect with their native culture. This can help children in shaping their world view and increase their awareness and appreciation of other cultures.
  • Cognitive – The switching between two languages provides great mental stimulation and allows for bilingual children’s brains to become more adept at problem solving. A study conducted by psychologists in 2004 (Bialystok & Martin) revealed that bilingual children had more success at sorting objects by shape and colour, while the monolingual children had difficulty when a second characteristic was introduced (sorting by shape). There is much research to show that bilingualism helps with critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of mind.
  • Linguistic skills – Bilingual individuals have been shown to have increased meta-linguistic awareness (ability to understand language as a system that can be manipulated and explored) and phonological skills (ability to identify and manipulate the sounds and units of oral language) (Marian & Shook, 2012). This is highly beneficial for literacy development in children and extremely helpful for learning additional languages.
  • Academic – As bilingualism can enhance children’s cognitive and literacy skills, which are crucial for learning across all subjects, it can have a positive impact on their academic success in school.
  • Employment – Speaking a second or multiple additional languages can boost one’s employability as they can offer valuable skills in connecting their business/services to individuals from other cultures both in the community and internationally.
daughter and mother doing hand signs

Language development in CALD children

Children will still learn English if the family speaks another language/s at home. You do not need to stop speaking your native language for them to develop skills in English. It is important to support the development of both languages, and the best way to do this is continue your native language at home. The stronger the first/native language, the easier it is to learn a second language. Studies have shown that rather than an English-only approach, a bilingual approach actually helps children learn more vocabulary in both of their languages (Méndez et al., 2018).

There are two main ways that children acquire more than one language:

– Simultaneous acquisition is when two languages are learnt by a child at the same time. This mostly happens when a child grows up in a bilingual household.

– Sequential acquisition is when a child learns a second language after their first language. This commonly occurs when a child is brought up with a certain language at home, and then learns a second language at school.

It is important to consider the differences between English and the second language when it comes to communication milestones. There will be differences in when we expect CALD children to meet certain milestones, due to differences in culture, social communication and rules, complexity of the languages and the individual sounds within the languages. For example, if there is an English sound that does not exist in the child’s native language (e.g., the /f/ sound does not exist in the Korean phonemic alphabet, nor does the /th/ sound in the French phonemic alphabet), we will not have the same developmental expectations as a child with English as their first language. Perfect pronunciation is less important, as we understand accents are a natural part of learning another language and simply a result of the characteristics of one’s first language coming through in the second. As long as they can be understood by others, a close approximation of the target sound rather than an exact production is acceptable. Having an accent is perfectly ok.

What you may see in children learning English as a second language (supporting bilingual children document)

  • Silent period – Many children go through a phase of becoming silent when exposed to a new language. This can last from a few weeks to several months and can be a significant period during the child’s learning development in which they are taking in and building understanding of their new second language. It is very important to allow this time for children to observe and not pressure them to speak. During this time children may use non-verbal communication (gestures, pointing, etc,) and reply on adults to help facilitate communication.
  • Imitation – You may hear your child start to imitate a few single words or phrases that they have heard in English, such as “Hey, what’s up?” and “I dunno”. These are not constructed from the child’s own language knowledge and vocabulary, but rather memorised phrases from what they have heard. You may also see them trying to follow and imitate other English-speaking children more.
  • Meaningful productions – Once your child has fully observed and built an understanding of the English language, they will begin to use the English words they have learnt to actually communicate and convey meaning rather than simply repeating what they have heard. They will also start to combine English words meaningfully into short phrases, then sentences and eventually they will be able to have fluent conversations in English.
  • Code Switching – This when a bilingual speaker uses words from both of their languages within the same phrase or sentence. For example: “Are we eating chez ta mère demain?” (English + French: “Are we eating at your mother’s house?”). It is normal for learning children to get a little mixed up with their languages. This is just their brains getting used to switching between languages and is a typical part of bilingual language development. As well as accidental code switching or using code switching to fill in vocabulary gaps in one’s second language, purposeful code switching is used by proficient bilingual speakers amongst same language speakers for emphasis and to enhance expression, e.g., “Y luego él dijo STOP” (Spanish mixed with English: “And then he said STOP!”). In some languages, code switching with English in everyday communication has become so common that whole new terms have been coined for the mix of languages, e.g., ‘Spanglish’ for Spanish and English and ‘Konglish’ for Korean and English.

Factors influencing learning English as a second language

– Simultaneous or sequential acquisition
– Length of time exposed to English
– Amount of exposure to English
– The similarities and differences between the native language and English, e.g., Spanish has more similarities with English than a language like Mandarin, which has many more differences to English
– The acceptance and value given to English and the native language
– The family; their access to resources, needs and support, and level of engagement with their children
– The child; personality, confidence and learning style will affect how willing and ready they are to learn and try and use their new language

Supporting bilingualism at home

  • Continue your native language at home – If you are worried your English skills are not strong enough to support your bilingual child’s English development, that’s ok! There is no need to focus on English at home if you are not comfortable; they will learn English at their preschools and schools. The way you can help them at home is to model whatever language you are most comfortable speaking, so they are exposed to lots of grammatically correct sentences and vocabulary. When you focus on the development of their native language you are arming them with strong language skills that they can transfer.
  • Read books – don’t feel like you have to stick to what’s written. Go off script and describe the pictures, make up your own stories, let your kid skip ahead to their favourite page!
  • Bilingual books – this is a great resource in targeting both languages at once. Search online to see if there are any bilingual picture books in your language.
  • Sing songs and listen to music in your native language – music is a fun way for kids to learn language by tapping into the creative side of their brain!
  • Watch movies – change the audio and subtitles to watch movies in both English and your native language.
  • Look for word games and apps in your native language.
  • Older siblings – some studies have suggested that bilingual toddlers’ language development is more influenced by their older school aged siblings than their parents (Bridges & Hoff, 2014). These toddlers were shown to have stronger English grammar and vocabulary early on as compared to bilingual only or eldest children. As bilingual toddlers naturally pick up English from their older school aged siblings, you can encourage interaction with other family members and relatives who speak your native language, so they are getting input from both languages.
  • Engage with your community: as well as child-care centres and preschools, you can find communities of the same culture and language to engage with such as bilingual play groups, support groups, churches etc.

*Important tip: When playing or book-reading with your child, try to let them take the lead and follow their lead. Children learn best when they’re enjoying themselves, and you will get more engagement and interaction out of them if you are doing an activity or talking about something they’re interested in.

Identifying language delays

It can be difficult to determine whether your child has a language delay or is simply in the process of slowly learning English as their second language. Points to remember:

– Signs of a delay are the same as monolingual children with a delay; not talking as much as peers and not meeting communication milestones according to their age,
– Important to consider the silent period, and your child’s confidence level in their English skills to be talking to other children,
– A good marker of their communication skills will be how they communicate at home and talk to you or their siblings
– Code switching is not a sign of a language delay
– If a child has a developmental language or speech disorder/delay, they will have a delay in both languages, not just English
– Remember that traditional English language assessments only test a bilingual child’s exposure level to English; it does not test their language learning ability. A dynamic assessment is much more appropriate for bilingual children. Rather than testing how much English they’ve heard, dynamic assessments look at: if we teach this child a language rule, can they then learn this rule correctly and utilise this language knowledge?

If you are concerned your child may have speech or language difficulties across both languages, it is important to consult a speech pathologist who can help determine whether your child has a communication delay or not.

Speech pathologists Role

Our job is to:

– Encourage and support development of both languages.
– Provide strategies and techniques for families so they can support their children’s language development at home.
– Assist with difficulties in speech, language, fluency and voice through dynamic assessments and evidence-based family-centred therapy.
– Work on intelligibility – not perfect English. We are not looking to get rid of accents.

Although they can be tricky to find, there are a number of bilingual/multilingual speech pathologists who are able to provide assessment and therapy in both English and your native language.


Interpreters are a service we can utilise to further support our families who may be more comfortable speaking in their native language. Assessment and therapy can be delivered through interpreters who translate and facilitate smooth communication between the speech pathologist and the client. They are an extremely valuable resource that allows us to reach CALD individuals who may not have been confident or able to engage with speech pathology services otherwise. Interpreting within speech pathology is quite different to other domains and comes with its own particular ethical and linguistic challenges. As it crucial for us to know exactly what our clients are saying it and exactly how they are saying it, the interpreter must stick to strict word for word translations and detailed descriptions rather than a general paraphrased interpretation of what was said.

Happy Talking,



American Journal of Speech Language Pathology 2015 24(4): 619-636

Bialystok E, Martin MM. (2004) Attention and inhibition in bilingual children: Evidence from the dimensional change card sort task. Developmental Science, 7:325–339

Bridges, K., & Hoff, E. (2014). Older Sibling Influences on the Language Environment and Language Development of Toddlers in Bilingual Homes. Applied psycholinguistics, 35(2), 225–241.

Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012, September). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.

Méndez, L. I., Crais, E. R., & Kainz, K. (2018). The impact of individual differences on a bilingual vocabulary approach for Latino preschoolers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.