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Article updated: 11/8/2013 12:50 PM

Bilingualism doesn't cause speech delays

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By Helen Minciotti

Bilingual Children

He was a sharp little guy who seemed to understand the conversation of family and friends and easily followed his parents' directions.

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Despite these excellent receptive abilities and equally impressive motor skills, the two-year-old had few spoken words. Mom wondered if this expressive delay was due to the family's efforts to foster the development of dad's native tongue along with English.

I'm a big fan of kids learning two languages as early as possible and always encourage parents when they tell me they are trying to pass along their own cultural language.

There's no better time to start this process than early infancy when the developing brain easily absorbs information without the self-conscious hesitation that often accompanies learning a second language as a high school student or adult.

This early dual-language use is not thought to be responsible for speech deficits. In their article on speech and language in Pediatrics in Review, authors Susan McQuiston and Nancy Kloczko report that many experts find that bilingualism does not cause language delay in children with normal learning potential.

Therefore, speech-delayed bilingual kids require the same speech evaluation and treatment as their speech-delayed single language peers.

Drs. Barbara Lust and Sujin Yang of the Cornell University College of Human Ecology confirm that bilingual children do not experience speech delays, language confusion, or cognitive problems. In fact, the two researchers note that bilingualism has definite cognitive and social advantages.

Learning and speaking two or more languages appears to enhance the development of a student's executive attention -- the ability to focus amid distractions, while providing the multi-language child with easier access to other world cultures.

While some parental effort is usually needed to encourage a bilingual child, the Cornell researchers note that typically developing kids don't need to be "drilled" in a second language. Kids come to understand and speak a given language by listening, through interactive conversation, and while at play with kids in multilingual environments.

Exposing kids to two or more languages through the arts -- movies, music, dance, reading and storytelling -- can help keep language learning fun and appealing at all ages.

Lust and Yang also advise that parents continue using their mother tongue at home if they wish to keep this "heritage" language alive while their children speak English in day care or at school.

At the same time, the Cornell researchers note that there is no need to rigidly follow a "one person-one language" plan since kids are amazingly clever and learn to "sort out" languages on their own.

• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

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