Five Signs Your Bilingual Child may Need to see a Speech Pathologist
Post contributor/author: Julie Perron, Bilingual Speech Pathologist with Speech Pathology Master’s Program
Although bilingualism DOES NOT cause speech and language disorders, it can sometimes be hard for parents to know which aspects of bilingual language development are normal and which are a sign of speech disorder. Here are a few things you might notice as your child learns multiple languages and how to tell if they might need to go to the speech-language pathologist for an evaluation:
Children learning multiple languages often experience a “silent period” as they learn their secondary language, but silence can also be a sign that a child has what is called selective mutism. Selective mutism is a disorder where a child’s anxiety causes them not to speak in certain situations. While bilingualism does not cause this disorder, a lack of confidence in a language can lead to the anxiety that triggers selective mutism.
Silence is normal when a child is using the silence to listen and gain proficiency in the secondary language. Silence may also be a sign of selective mutism if the child is not speaking in certain situations for over a month, even though they are proficient enough in the language to be making conversation.
Even though the anxiety that causes selective mutism can be caused by a lack of confidence in using a secondary language, it can affect the primary language as well. If your child meets the above criteria or selective mutism, they should get an evaluation from a speech pathologist.
Improper Speech Sounds
Oftentimes, a bilingual child starts using one language before learning another or uses one language more frequently. The characteristics of the primary language, such as accents and pronunciations, can influence how sounds are made when using other languages and lead to mistakes. This is very typical. However, sometimes improper sounds are a result of a speech disorder. If one language uses the sounds the child has difficulty making more frequently than another, the disorder may be more apparent in one of the languages spoken. If your child continues to have difficulty making certain sounds, they should see an SLP.
Sometimes, if a child is still learning a language, they could make errors that resemble stuttering. However, stuttering can affect one language more than another, so just because it most often occurs in the “weaker” language doesn’t mean it isn’t actually a stutter. If you have a suspicion that a child is stuttering, you should look out for the following signs:
- Stuttering when the child is searching for the right word
- Stuttering at times when the child is using both languages in the same sentence
- Stuttering when using more complex sentences
- Doing the above for at least 6 months
These won’t be the only times the child stutters, but these moments can often induce stuttering and make it more apparent.
If a child is stuttering, remember to:
- Speak to them in one language at a time
- Allow them to mix vocabulary from both languages but respond with using the word they used in another language in the language being spoken
- Take them for an evaluation if stuttering behaviors persist for 6 months
Difficulty with Reading, Writing, and Numbers
If a child is having difficulty reading, writing, and understanding words and numbers, it should not be assumed that it is due to lack of proficiency in a language. Many dyslexia cases in bilingual children are spotted later because of this assumption. If your child has issues with the following in both languages, they should be tested for dyslexia in each language that they speak:
- Learning words
- Finding the right word
- Learning numbers
- Doing math
- Reading comprehension
- Remembering details
- Understanding questions
- Following directions
- Understanding sounds
- Learning songs
- Mixing up letters and numbers
- Writing and spelling
- Telling time and knowing left from right
Loss of Ability to Speak the Primary Language
If your child learns a second language and starts using it all of the time, they will start losing proficiency in the language that they are no longer speaking. If you want to ensure that your child maintains the ability to speak in all of his or her learned languages, make sure that each language is spoken regularly!
Need to Find an SLP?
If you have a bilingual child that you believe needs an evaluation from a speech-language pathologist, you must consider the child’s language abilities in each of their languages. Each case is different, but depending on the child’s need, a bilingual speech pathologist may or may not be necessary. A true bilingual SLP will know 2 languages at near native proficiency or better. You may only need a professional who has some proficiency in a second language- each case is different. Sometimes a bilingual SLP won’t be available for the languages needed and an interpreter will be necessary. These days, an interpreter may not even have to be in the room, they can provide interpretation services through the phone or video chat.
Your child’s school will most likely have a speech pathologist on staff that can evaluate your child and provide treatment. Depending on the school, this SLP may be bilingual and have the ability to treat your child in the necessary languages. You can also seek a professional outside of the school system. Luckily, ASHA has a database of over 2,000 bilingual SLPs you can look through to find one nearby that fits your needs.