Babies Growing up in a Bilingual Environment

Updated on March 03, 2011
M.T. asks from Saint Paul, MN
18 answers

Hi, my son, who is 16 months old, is growing up in a bilingual environment (sort of). He goes to day care (all English) 10 hours a day on weekdays, and when he's home, my husband speaks English, and I tried to speak to him in my native language as much as I can (although when I speak to my husband I use English so he's exposed to me speaking English as well).

He's 16 months but he hasn't had his first word yet - he says "oh" a lot, and he says "mama" Mammy" "dada" "daddy" a lot, but not necessarily in the right context. I recently read that it's a red flag if a child doesn't have first word by 16 months. Although I wasn't that concerned because he's in a bilingual environment and I've heard that speech may be a bit delayed at the beginning in that kind of situation, I brought up the topic casually with his day care provider.

She (the day care provider) said that it's too confusing for a child to be in a bilingual environment, so I should stop speaking to him in my language.

I don't want to do that --I want my son to be able to talk with my parents and my side of the relatives, and learn to read and write in my language too if possible.

So here's the question. If you have raised your child in a bilingual environment, how has your experience been? When did your child have his/her first word? Did you decide not to use another language so your child will learn English more smoothly? Did you feel your child trying to learn two languages at once was detrimental? Any experience letting your child learn English first and then learn second language later - how fluent did she/he get?

Your experience or experience of anyone you know is welcome! Thank you!

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So What Happened?

Thank you so much for your comments! My son is now 18 month old and still no real words... Our pediatrician at his 18 month check up said that he may be "delayed" a bit because he's in a bilingual environment - should be monitored and we'll go in in 8 more weeks to see how he's doing - then there may be hearing and some other tests if he's not speaking real words by then. It does worry me a bit but I'll try to believe that he'll start to talk (in two languages!) by/around 2 years and will be no problem! I am still talking to him in my own language (even more, after reading your comments).

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answers from New York on

Find a new day care provider.

A bilingual environment is a wonderful experience for a child. Both my children were exposed to 2 languages at an early age. My oldest daughter's first words were in Portugese. (I only speak English). Although once she started speaking in phrases, she would use Portugese words, with English grammer. But she learned the correct way quickly. It always amazed me that she knew who to speak Portugese to and who to speak English to.

My youngest never spoke Portuguese, just a few words here and there.

However, once she started school and everyone spoke English, she stopped speaking Portugese. My husband said he and his sisters did the same thing. My dauther is now in high school and is taking Spanish. Since both languages have some similiar words and sounds, she's finding it to be very easy.

My husband and his sisters grew up in a bilingual household. Both parents, and are bilingual. All 3 are fluent in both languages.


answers from New York on

We also live in a bilingual home, or at least i try because very often I don't even notice that I stop speaking Spanish.
My daughter was late for speak and I was wondering the same thing, that it was confusing.
I also heard many times that this is the BEST time for them to learn 2 or even more languages so I just kept trying.
She is 2.5 now and she speaks a lot more English then Spanish but I know she understand the difference and she have her little Spanish vocabulary (numbers from 1 to 15, colors and some easy words like come, ven, dame, etc). Sometimes we count and I would tell her in English and she would do and then I would say Spanish and she would do.
I don't know if the delay has something to do with them being bilingual but don't worry, they get it and it is wort it.
Mucha suerte!

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answers from Missoula on

Nevermind what your daycare provider has told you. Your child is primed to learn language at this stage and will pick up both languages if that is what he is exposed to. It is not too confusing, and I would continue doing what you are doing. If you are concerned about delays, talk to your pediatrician, but I wouldn't really be worried if I were in your shoes. People pay lots of money to send their kids to preschools where a second language is spoken, your son is fortunate to be exposed to two languages at this point in his life when it is much easier to learn them.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Lexington on

Your daycare provider is full of it.

I grew up in a bilingual household (and now am fluent in 5 languages) and we are raising DS to be polylingual as well (currently he is learning 3 languages). He did actually start full on talking later than some other children, but it definitely has been no detriment to him, and hasn't kept him from being a complete chatterbox.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Philadelphia on

I grew up in a bilingual (actually, I was exposed to English, Japanese Norwegian from mom, German and Spanish from grandparents, although I only *spoke* English, Japanese and a bit of German) household in Japan and I don't remember it being confusing at all. My nephew lives in Japan. My SIL is Japanese but grew up mostly in Australia. My brother grew up in Japan, but he's Caucasian and speaks both English and Japanese like they're his native tongue. My bro and SIL speak a mix of Japanese and Englishes (both American English and Australian English) to my nephew. My nephew is just over 26months old. The only confusion he has is this: he speaks English to you if you look Caucasian, he speaks Japanese to you if you look Asian. This becomes very funny when we go to Hawaii and hang out with our cousin's fiancee who is American of Japanese descent and doesn't speak a WORD of Japanese. My little nephew REFUSES to speak anything but Japanese to her! And when *I* try to speak Japanese to him, he looks away as if I'm not there, for me, with my blue eyes, it's ONLY English! But as far as his language development, he's not as far along as MY kids were at that age for ENGLISH, that's true, but he will eventually be fluent in two languages, which my kids will NOT be.

Please, please keep talking to your child in your own's the *best* way for him to learn it and he will THANK you someday. And please disregard the people who tell you it's not good, your child is confused, why does he need another language everyone in the WORLD speaks English, etc. Learning another language is a great way to learn another culture and, in the US, IMHO, we NEED more cultural awareness and tolerance!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

Hello! Me and my spouse are Vietnamese I really wanted for my baby girl to grow up knowing her native language so we try to speak to her more im Vietnamese. Both sets of grandparents always speak to her in Vietnamese too. But we do also speak to her in English some. I work in a nail salon and my daughter comes with me to work so she hears a lot of English from all the clients that come in and also from TV or videos. She started talking a little before she turned 1. I think it's been great for her because she speaks both language but more so Vietnamese and that's how I would like it to be.

When I was growing up, my parents had just came to the states and didn't know much English. I spoke nothing but Vietnamese until the day I went to school and that's when I learned English. It's amazing how fast we pick up things when we're young. Also, my parents had a rule that when me and my siblings we're at home we were only to speak Vietnamese, and when we were at school we can speak english. Now I speak both language fluently and I have my parents to thank for it.

My little cousin came here to the states a few years ago when she was 2 and spoke nothing but Vietnamese because no one spoke english to her. She started Kindergarten and amazingly she speaks english like all the other kids. She now speaks both fluently.

Don't worry about it too much. You know what is best for your child, whichever way you go about it. Hoping you the best with your munchkin!

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answers from Minneapolis on

I read that children exposed to 2 languages pre-verbally may begin talking a little later but when they do they suddenly begin speaking both languages!

It is not harmful; in fact, learning two languages now will help your child learn other languages more quickly later down the line. You are doing your child a huge service.

My sister is fluent in Spanish. She lives in Texas and has spoken Spanish almost exclusively to my nephew (4). Her husband speaks English to him, and my nephew is now fluent in Spanish. And English.

I wish so much my husband had done this with our daughter (spoken his native language to her from birth). She has no familiarity at all with his language and won't until she begins language classes in a couple of years, at which point English will be ingrained and his lanuage will always feel a foreign language to her. Please keep doing what you are doing!

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answers from Washington DC on

I know several families where the parents spoke two or more languages and the kid picked up on all of them. As kids do, they may pick the easiest word for the moment, or they may use a word their way vs the proper way. My great-niece has no trouble understanding Spanish or English, and she's about your son's age. I also wouldn't expect a 16 mo. old to roll out sentences.

I would talk to his pediatrician if you have concerns. I would be more concerned if he didn't interact, if he didn't use any communication. Have you tried sign language? Yes, it's another language, but if he's not verbal, he might take to a meaningful sign and be able to talk to you.

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answers from Phoenix on

#1 - your daycare provide is completely wrong.

#2 - We have lots of friends who have grown up in bi-lingual homes and lots of friends who are raising their kids in bi-lingual homes now.

My personal observation is that these children are very aware of which parent speaks which language, and will expect that language from that parent. They will even get upset, at about this toddler age, if the parent switches. Seems the child wants consistency. The parent who the child spends the majority of time with, this is the language the child typically becomes most active in, in the beginning. They seem to prefer to speak one language over another, and usually a little 'behind' the curve in the beginning only.

Learning another language is akin to learning primes the brain and makes it easier to learn, not more difficult.



answers from Columbus on

Do not believe your daycare provider.

Studies have shown that, yes, bilingual babies do have a speech delay in using (speaking) words, but that it actually _helps_ them in the long run--it makes their brains more flexilble (sp) in all areas of problem solving, in languages and also in other areas as well.

So, what I would say is, if he is clearly understanding you (can follow basic commands, etc.), then I wouldn't worry about it.

We have 2 family friends who are bilingual (one Norwegian/English, the other German/English), and yes, the kids in the families were slower to use spoken words, or use them correctly, but they were speaking words in both languages by age 2. The one little one we saw more of definitely didn't verbalize "words" until two really.

So, don't let your childcare provider, or anyone else, rob you and your family of this blessing of bilingual/cultural heritage! :)



answers from Los Angeles on

I have a few friends raising their kids in bilingual homes. In general, they have learned to speak a little bit later than most of the English-only kids that I know. Not by much, but sometimes 2-6 months slower than their peers. BUT, all of the parents are SO glad that they are raising their kids to learn both languages (and, in a couple of cases, three languages).

Honestly, I think it is very important that you continue to speak to your baby exclusively in your native tongue. Now is the time to teach him.

He will likely end up speaking mostly English once he starts school and really gets going, but he will always at least understand the other language and be able to speak it if he tries hard enough.

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answers from Chicago on

There is nothing wrong with a bilingual environment. There was actually a recent study and they found that the kids that had a bilingual home did better on tests and other areas when they were older. They also socialized well, though not sure how that factors in. My daughter was exposed to Spanish in the home and a previous sitter spoke only Spanish. I speak mostly English but sometimes Spanish as well. A child will be a bit delayed and may seem to have fewer words for a vocabulary but then you have to factor in the words he is saying in Spanish and in English to get the total. I would say talk to him more, and try to get a response. My son--we didn;t really push both languages then--did not really try to talk until he was almost 2.



answers from Redding on

My aunt is from Viet Nam.
My cousin was raised speaking two languages.
She is now a doctor and her husband is a doctor as well.
I don't know when she first developed her language patterns, but she wasn't harmed by speaking two languages.
I also have known hearing children who were raised in deaf families.
They speak, use sign language, etc.
Some children, especially in European countries, speak multiple languages.
Kids learn more easily when they are little, not the other way around. That's just my opinion.
Some of the smartest adults I know seemed to take longer to actually become verbal.
I'm no expert, but I think that they were just absorbing everything and "processing" it before it started coming out.
Kids learn what they're around and what comes naturally.
I bet before you know it, your son will be talking your leg off and you'll be wishing he had an "off" button.
I personally don't think that dual languages being spoken around him has anything to do with it.

Try not to let what someone else says worry you so much.


answers from Washington DC on

My son is deaf and we use American Sign Language and English. He gets that at school and home. I don't think that I can really compare his speech progression with your childs however, a child that is learning to be bilingual takes longer to speak. They are soaking it all in. Maybe you can call or make an appointment with his pediatrician to rule anything else out but, I would say that the daycare provider is from ancient times. There are so many bilingual muticultural families in this world, that is just silly for her to say. Be proud! Understand that your child has an added benefit and will become more educated by having that access. Don't hang on every word that someone in that field says. They may have many years in childcare but that doesn't mean they are experts in all aspects of a child's development. My son was an observer for many years then BOOM...Now he is speaking clear enough for an adult to understand and signing skills are above his peers level. Your are a great mom! Keep it up. He will get it eventually.



answers from Honolulu on

My kids are 4 and 8 years old.
SINCE birth, my Husband has spoken to them in his native language (he is European). And I speak to them in mine, English.
My Husband is bi-lingual in his language and in English.
I am not bi-lingual. I only speak English.
My kids are totally bi-lingual in speaking and hearing and for my eldest, in writing.
They are competent on both languages and it does NOT impair them in any way
In fact, being bi-lingual, to me, helps them to acquire other skills, more readily. And it has been proven, that being multilingual builds more synapses in the brain... as a child develops.

My kids for example, really pick up on other languages very easily, and the accent for it.
My eldest child, also knows Mandarin, and Hawaiian and Japanese. Which is taught at her school.

We never applied any formality to it or rules etc.
We just talk to them naturally, in our own languages.
That is how kids learn.
Kids are sponges and they learn.

It is NOT IN ANY WAY, detrimental.
Some countries, are just naturally multi-lingual, and it is never a bad thing.

It is best, if a child learns it when young and naturally. Per their parents. In the home. In daily life. Just ordinary daily life.
That is how they learn.
As a person gets older, it gets harder to learn another language.

As I said, my Husband and I, since our kids were born, the very first day they were born... we just spoke to them in both languages.
They fully know... and understand it. And, they have a greater appreciation & openness for other cultures, Because of their bi-lingual exposure.

*As a side note: my son was delayed in Speech. It was really no big deal. Many boys are. Our Speech Therapist said, it is in NO way, due to his bi-lingual languages in the home. If anything, she said it is a plus.
My son, although he used to be speech-delayed... was very articulate.
Speech-delay did not affect that.
My son meanwhile, is now the MOST talkative one in our family.
AND his vocabulary & understanding of words/ideas, per his age... is much more ahead than other kids his own age.

It is NOT "confusing" for a child to grow up in a bilingual or multilingual home. That, is a fallacy. Not true. I don't see why, people think this is a bad thing.
It is... most positive. To me.
In many places, people grow up Multilingual. And it is, advantageous.

By the way, I let my 8 year old Daughter, read your post, to see what she thought. She, being bilingual and grew up that way.
She thought, it was silly to be afraid of teaching a child to speak in more than 1 language. She said "that is the way you are born... and how your parents are and speak... it is not a bad thing.." She said it doesn't matter if you speak 2 or more languages at home.. your kid just learns.
She was surprised... to see that people even worry about it... teaching a kid more than 1 language. Because to her, it is commonplace and "no big deal."

My kids, have NEVER been 'confused' about their languages. At all. They are fully competent and much more articulate, verbally and conceptually, than other kids their own age.

To answer your Question:
1) my kids, have been spoken to in both languages since birth. They know no different. But are proud, of what they know and speak.
2) My Daughter, as most girls are quicker in speaking, started talking a bit before 1 years old. My son, at about 19 months old.
3) No. We always used both languages in our home. No biggie. My kids speak English well. And the other language too.
4) No, learning 2 or more languages at one time, is NOT a 'detriment."
5) To me, a child should learn both languages, at the same time. Meaning, there is no reason to stagger it. My kids are fluent in both.

The only concern I have is this: IF a parent speaks to their child in one language, but in parts of the same sentence uses the other language too... THEN your child will learn the WRONG way to speak. Because the sentence/grammar structure will be wrong and it will then be a 'pidgin' version of the language. Not the correct way.

all the best,



answers from Portland on

We have neighbors who raised their son in a German/English environment. He spoke not at all for about two years, but could obviously understand most of what he heard. Then one day he began speaking in long, fluent sentences in both languages simultaneously. Bright boy!



answers from Chicago on

Based on what you wrote, your child has 5 words. Each of those counts as a word. I'm pretty sure research shows raising a child in a bilingual environment will be fine, and as long as your English is strong English, your child will be fine once he reaches school.



answers from Portland on

I agree that your daycare provider is an idiot.

People all over the world speak multiple languages, except here.

I have an Early Childhood Education degree, and studied this as part of my curriculum. I was taught to encourage families to speak their native language to their children as much as possible. Do not stop speaking to your child in your native language. Yes, it is true that your child will mix the syntaxes of both languages together for awhile, and that is completely normal.

Riley's technical explanation of the milestones for dual-language development is spot on.

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