Raising Bilingual or Multilingual Children: What’s “Normal” and What’s Not?

Statistics Canada states that 11.9 % of the population speaks a language other than English or French at home. There are many benefits to raising bilingual children, but the question that often comes up is: How do I do it?

How do children learn two languages?

  • Two at once – this is when a child is exposed to both languages from birth or before age 3. Until about age 3, the child will use elements of both languages at once.
  • One after the other – this is when a child learns the second language after age 3, (when first language has already been learned).   Children will likely imitate and memorize short phrases or sentences in their second language before they start to create their own.

Don’t Worry!

There are some worries or concerns that parents might have about trying to teach their children more than one language, but they are not the case.

  • Bilingualism does not cause a language delay!
  • It is not necessary for a child (or adult) to be equally as fluent in each language

Also, some things parents may observe while raising bilingual or multilingual children can make them feel concerned that they’ve made the wrong decision; but, not to worry! They are really just a normal part of developing multiple languages:

  • A child learning more than one language may say their first word later than a child who is only learning one
  • A child learning a second language after the first might go through a period where they only use their first language even though they’ve been exposed to the second
  • A child learning a second language after their first also might go through a ‘silent period.’  Younger children may stay in this phase for longer and it could last several weeks to several months
  • A child learning more than one language will “code switch” or “code mix” by using sentences that have a mix of both languages

Red Flags for Language Difficulties in Bilingual Children

That being said, there are some things to watch for to make sure that your child is developing both of their languages well. If you notice any of the following, there may be cause for concern:

  • Child is not making the “p”, “b” or “m” sound by 2-6 months of age
  • At 6-15 months of age the child is using less than one new word per week
  • Less than 20 words (both languages combined) by 20 months
  • No word combinations (e.g. more juice) by 30 months of age
  • Child is not meeting developmental milestones in his/her first language
  • Imitation is echolalic (i.e. automatic “parroting” without thought/engagement)
  • Silent period is prolonged
  • Child is experiencing word finding difficulties

How Can I Make Learning Two Languages Easier for my Child?

One Parent, One Language

There are many suggestions about how to raise a bilingual child.  While studying second language acquisition at the University of Western Ontario, my professor suggested that parents employ the “one parent one language” strategy (each parent speaks a different language). I have made this suggestion to clients, friends and family, and have gotten positive feedback from them about how well it works.  I think the reason it worked so well is because one parent spoke English as his first language and the second parent spoke a different language as her first language.  Speaking your first language comes more naturally, so one language, one parent is likely more natural and comfortable.  If a parent is more comfortable or fluent in his first language he will then be providing a better (and likely more grammatically correct) model to his child – and we all know well that children learn the most from the models we give them!


One Parent, One Language is only one way to go about raising a bilingual child. Experts suggest that a child should be able to acquire two languages no matter how they are presented (both parents speak both languages, one language at home, one at school, etc.).  The key is CONSISTENCY!  You will likely be more consistent in establishing these patterns if it feels natural, so do what works best for you and your family.

If you are concerned about your child’s language acquisition, consult a speech language pathologist for more information!  

Remembrance Day Craft and Book Idea!

Do you have some craft items lying around the house?  Why not make your own poppy to wear with pride? You can honour our soldiers by wearing a poppy for Remembrance day.

What you need to make a poppy for Remembrance Day

  • coffee filters
  • food colouring or liquid watercolours (you can use shades of red, orange, pink and purple)
  • black buttons
  • paint brushes
  • ice cube tray or small bowls
  • pipe cleaner
  • safety pin
  • plastic table cloth

How to Make Your Remembrance Day Poppy

  1. Lay out your table cloth.
  2. Start by adding a small amount of water to an ice cube tray (only fill each ice cube section about half-way with water.
  3. Add 2-3 drops of food colouring. (For the liquid watercolours, use 6 to 8 drops per section, maybe more).
  4. Place the ice cube tray in a shallow pan to prevent it from being tipped over.
  5. Take several coffee filters and crumple them up before you paint them. When crumpling and flattening the coffee filters out you can provide lots of vocabulary.  Use words such as crumple, squeeze, rough, big, small, wrinkly, smooth, tight and loose.
  6. Next, use paintbrushes to dab and smear, and watch as the coffee filters absorb the water, and the colours spread and blend together. This is a great opportunity to use more vocabulary such as absorb, disappear, color and mixture.  Talk about how the filter is absorbing the water.
  7. To intensify the colour you can add a drop or two of food colouring directly to the wet coffee filter.
  8. To dry the coffee filters, you can put them on a drying rack or on a cookie sheet and let them dry or place a small fan in front of them to speed up the drying time.
  9. To make them into a poppy, layer two coffee filters and pinch them together at the back.  Wrap a short pipe cleaner around the pinched section of paper to secure everything together.
  10. To complete your poppy glue black buttons to the centers of your poppies.
  11. Using a safety pin you can attach a poppy to your clothes or coat and wear your poppy proudly for Remembrance Day.

Extension Activity: Read a Remembrance Day book! 

There are many books written about Remembrance day.  One of my favourites is “The Peace Book” by Todd Parr.

The description of this book was laid out nicely by Blair Christolon, Prince William Public Library System, Manassas, VA. “The concept of peace can be a difficult one to understand, and Parr makes an admirable attempt to explain it. He relates the notion to making new friends, listening to different kinds of music, and helping your neighbor. Where he stretches it a bit is with sentiments such as, “Peace is wishing on a star” or “…watching it snow,” even if the images are tranquil. Bright primary colors and bold black outlines define cartoonlike characters (animal and human) with smiling features. A helpful and engaging book that’s sure to spark discussion.”

Let’s all be thankful this Remembrance day and wear our handmade poppies proud and learn about peace from Todd Parr.

*craft idea taken from Pinterest

GwenBlackburn-220Gwen is a Communicative Disorders Assistant with more than 17 years of experience working with a diverse client base.  Her experiences have provided her with the wonderful opportunity to be associated with adults suffering from brain injuries, those that have experienced a stroke, children with articulation and language difficulties and children who have a limited word repertoire.

Brain Injury and Everyday Challenges

The news article, Acquired brain injury: survivor tells of challenges and struggles while rehabilitating,  highlights the struggles of everyday life that someone with brain injury has to deal with, and draws attention to the difference between what people see on the outside, versus what might be going on inside.

“Simple tasks he used to breeze through are now fatiguing and take great concentration.”

“He struggles to keep up with the general pace of day-to-day life and often becomes lost in his own thoughts due to the damage caused to his brain function.”

“On the outside, he is a tall, strong 40-year-old man but on the inside, he is uncertain and nervous.”

Brain injury can be far from obvious

While it may seem that challenges would be expected, it is so easy for friends, family members or the average person to not notice how difficult simple things can be for the person with a brain injury, particularly if the physical injuries are minimal or have healed. The brain injury itself is invisible! It is the symptoms and deficits which present themselves, and while some may be obvious, including word finding or memory problems, others are often more subtle, such as difficulty following what is being said and adjusting to topic changes. Friends may not understand that reading and responding to a simple email is exhausting. Family may not recognise that quickly running through weekend plans on the way out the door doesn’t even get processed. The bank teller may not realize that the main point of the conversation was never even reached and that only confusion resulted.

One reason this article caught my attention and resonated with me, is that one of my clients with mild brain injury recently talked about how family and friends had become disconnected and were carrying on with their lives. He also shared how it is so hard to meet and interact with new people, even those who work in the brain injury field, because no two people with brain injury are struggling with the same difficulties, at the same level, or in the same way. While he understood that other people really had no way of knowing or understanding exactly what he was experiencing, he also had to deal with the related sadness and frustration that goes along with this insight.

Brain injury and rehabilitation

In comparison, rehabilitation team members may be more familiar with and understand the long list of symptoms and difficulties that are part of brain injury. Yet at the same time, it can still be easy to get caught up in the world of rehabilitation, and forget about the everyday basic stuff. As clinicians, we are naturally therapy focused and goal oriented. It can be a real challenge to help a client make progress in their specific areas of difficulty, and at the same time recognize and incorporate their individual and everyday needs.

Ideal treatment approach

This article highlights the importance of a functional approach to speech-language pathology treatment with individuals with brain injury, such as helping clients deal with simple decision making or everyday communication challenges. It also emphasizes the benefit to therapeutic counselling, and focusing on goals such as improving insight and acceptance, or increasing overall communication confidence.

AmandaBrown-220Amanda Brown is a Speech-Language Pathologist with nearly a decade of experience in providing assessment and treatment to clients in the clinic and community settings. Amanda enjoys working with clients of all ages and applies a strong client-centred approach to her therapy, balanced with family/team collaboration.