Parents Want To Know: Can Learning Two Languages Cause Speech Delays?

Parents Want To Know: Can Learning Two Languages Cause Speech Delays?

I recently spoke to a wonderful group of mothers at a Big City Mom’s lunch on the upper east side in New York. I have been speaking to moms groups in cities across the country, and one of the questions that has come up more than once is whether learning a second language causes speech delays.

As a mom, I am very sensitive to this issue – I know how eager I was for Emmett to speak once he began using a few words at age 18 months, and understand why mothers would be concerned about doing anything to delay speech in their children.

There is widespread scientific research that proves that learning and/or exposing your child to a second language at an early age will not cause your child to speak English later or less well; that on the contrary, it is a boon. Yet because people used to think that there could be negative side effects to learning two languages as once, some people continue to think so.

The fact is that babies, toddlers and preschoolers are actually able to learn up to three languages at once without confusion. Early foreign language exposure enhances a child’s primary language development, and his or her brain power. Experts have dismissed the idea that bilingualism can be confusing for a young child.

“This idea was dramatically reversed in a landmark study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal that showed a general superiority of bilinguals over monolinguals in a wide range of intelligence tests and aspects of school achievement” (Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Professor of Psychology at York University, Canada). Dr. Bialystok has even done studies that show that young children who speak a second language have a cognitive edge over monolingual children.

So go ahead and teach your little one “j’ai soif” or “tengo hambre” with confidence! You will be helping them to achieve a better accent and fluency later on and enhance their social and verbal skills.

To read more about the scientific studies supporting learning two languages, click here.

Many parents write in and ask me questions about foreign language learning, and so occasionally the blog will feature a question/answer. Today’s question is “How do I decide what foreign language to teach my child?”

Maybe you are like many parents who know they want to start their child on a second language early but don’t know which to choose. The first thing you should know is that you can’t go wrong. Whatever language you choose, starting your young child on the path to learning a foreign language paves the way for your child to have a good accent, to have the chance of being fluent, and makes it easier for them to learn whatever language they choose to study later on in life. You are giving them the foundation, and they will reap the benefits for a lifetime. A book that is great for introducing your child to the idea that different languages are spoken around the world is Babar’s World Tour, where the French elephant Babar takes his family on a trip around the world and his children learn to say phrases in all the different languages.

To many people, the obvious answer to “which language?” in the U.S. is Spanish since it is spoken by over 34 million people in our country. However, this should not necessarily be the only determining factor in your choice. I find parents are more likely to reinforce the learning if they choose a second language to which at least one of the parents has some connection. If one of the parents is fluent in the language that is obviously an advantage, but is not necessary for the child to pick it up. Many moms write to tell me how fun it was for them to see that their high school Spanish or French came back to them while watching Little Pim (it beats singing “I love you” with Barney). Your child can always choose a different language later on; at this early phase, it’s most important to give them the framework and a sense that learning and speaking a second language can be fun.

For people who want more concrete answers, here are the “official” Little Pim guidelines for choosing a language:

  1. Pick a language you like, perhaps have always wanted to speak (even if it’s not the most practical) and that you will enjoy hearing and practicing with your child.
  2. Pick a language that you can reinforce easily through native speaking caretakers and or kids, local or international trips, live music and CDs or language classes.
  3. Pick a language your partner/spouse/fellow caretakers agree(s) on and make a plan together for how to bring this language into your home through DVDs, music and in person speaking.
  4. If your child is old enough (15 months +), try out the different languages and see which one he or she responds to most.


Julia Pimsleur Levine

Julia Pimsleur Levine is the Founder and CEO of the Little Pim Corporation, which produces and distributes the Little Pim: fun with languages series to introduce young children to a second language.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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