Speaking two languages can slow a child’s development

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Written By Mohsen Salami

Trying to speak two languages at the same time may slow down the language skills of expat children, says a new study.

Many expat children are expected to be bilingual, but many monolingual children pick up words easier than those learning two languages.

A comprehensive three-year study across nine British universities that covered nearly 400 families with children aged two learning English and 13 other common languages.

The research revealed that children learning a language close to English – such as Dutch or German – picked up words in the second language much easier than those learning languages unconnected to English, like Mandarin.

Development disorders

“Many children in the UK grow up with two or more languages but growing up bilingual also usually means these children acquire each language at a slower pace than monolingual peers,” explained Dr Andrea Krott, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology.

“Since up to 15% of children have delayed language acquisition due to developmental disorders, it is important to be able to distinguish whether the slow language development of a bilingual child is due to them being bilingual or is the result of a developmental impairment.”

To check a child’s language development, parents are asked to tick off words as their child learns how to read or say them in English and their second language.

A log is also kept of how much time a child speaks English compared to their second language.

Learning resources

Researchers say the data lets them allocate extra learning resources to children who may be falling behind.

Project leader Dr Caroline Floccia, associate professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth, said: “While language is a foundation for harmonious development in a child and being bilingual is now a norm across the world, in most cases, their development in each language is slightly delayed compared to that of monolingual children.

“This can have knock-on effects both for them and when they get to school for their peers. We are proposing the first practical solution to the problems faced by bilingual children, because the earlier we identify and tackle these potential issues, the more likely a positive outcome for the children and their prospects.”