Raising a bilingual child – is it ‘dangerous’?

6 Apr, 2020

Raising a bilingual child – is it ‘dangerous’?

Australia is a multi-cultural country and, as such, many of its inhabitants speak multiple languages.

When raising a child, parents who speak multiple languages or different languages may face the quandary of which language to speak with their child. Many parents may wonder whether it is ‘safe’ to speak to them in two languages.

This is because, traditionally, there has been a fair amount of misinformation spread about the ‘dangers’ of speaking to your child in multiple languages. It is a commonly held belief that trying to raise your child to speak two languages can result in them acquiring a language delay (King & Fogle, 2006).

In this post, we will break down the myths about raising bilingual children, how children acquire two languages, the benefits of being bilingual, what to expect and what to look out for when raising bilingual children.

bilingual child

What does it mean to be bilingual?

People who are bilingual can speak two languages. However, their fluency in both languages may not be equal. Especially as most people only live in one country, so they may use the language they are most exposed to, more often. Their fluency or proficiency in either language may also change or develop over time, depending on their exposure to the language in question (Nicoladis, Charbonnier, & Popescu, 2016).

Children can become bilingual, or acquire two languages in two different ways:

  • Simultaneous acquisition
  • Occurs when the child is exposed to both languages simultaneously from birth, or from very early in their childhood (before the age of 3).
  • The child will go through their milestones in both languages, as a child would normally in one language.
  • Sequential acquisition
  • Occurs when the child is exposed to a second language after they have been speaking their first language for a significant amount of time (i.e. after age 3).
  • A second language may be acquired in this way if the child moves to a new country after the age of 3. Additionally, it may occur when children who speak one language exclusively at home begin attending school (Lowry, 2016).

Bilingual Myths

When my child mixes up their languages when they talk, it means they are confused about which language is which

  • Actually, when bilingual children switch between their languages, this is known as ‘code-switching’ and is a normal part of bilingualism (Goldstein & Kohnert, 2005);
  • Code switching is seen by some as a sign of proficiency in both languages (Genesee, 2009).

Speaking to my child in two languages will give them a language delay/disorder

  • As mentioned in the introduction, it is a commonly held belief that speaking to children in two languages and trying to raise them as a bilingual can cause a language delay;
  • Research indicates that typical bilingual children develop grammar and achieve language milestones at similar timelines to children who are exposed to one language (Genesee, 2009);
  • A child who speaks two languages may have a reduced vocabulary in each language than a child who speaks one language, however, their vocabulary combined should be at least that of a typical child who speaks one language – if not more (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011).

One parent should only speak one language each with the child (one parent-one language)

  • Some people believe that this is the only way bilingual children should be spoken to, and that it reduces confusion in the child;
  • While there is no evidence to say this is not a suitable approach for raising a bilingual child, research indicates that bilingual children will code-switch either way and as described above, there is nothing wrong with code-switching! (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011)

Benefits of being bilingual

Research shows that there may be many unexpected benefits to being bilingual, other than the obvious – you can speak two languages!

  • Children who are bilingual have demonstrated a better ability in focussing on particular tasks, and ignoring distractions (Poulin-Dubois, Blaye, Coutya, & Bialystok, 2011);
  • Some research suggests that bilingual children may be more creative and may be better at complex problem solving (Bamford & Mizokawa, 1991).


It should be noted that these benefits seem to be associated with the child’s proficiency in the languages, therefore the better the child is speaking at both languages, the more they may experience these benefits (Lowry, 2016).

What should I expect when raising a bilingual child?

  • Bilingual children may achieve their first word slightly later than monolingual children, however still within the average age range i.e. between 8-15 months of age (Meisel, 2004);
  • Bilingual children usually have a dominant language (i.e. a language they are more proficient in), as there is usually an increased exposure to one language (Paradis, 2010). Additionally, it is normal for this dominant language to change if circumstances change (Goldstein & Kohnert, 2005);
  • They may go through what is known as ‘the silent period’. This occurs usually when children are suddenly exposed to a second language (as described in sequential acquisition of two languages). For example, when they first go to school where everyone speaks a different language to their home language. During this period, the child will not speak or will speak very little in that language. It may last between a few weeks to several months, during which time the child is building their understanding of the new language (Tabors, 1997);
  • Otherwise, language and speech development should occur as normal other than the potential differences described above!

When should I see a Speech Pathologist?

If your child is not achieving their communication milestones as expected, it is a good idea to seek the help of a speech pathologist. The speech pathologist can assess the child and ascertain whether there is a language or speech delay/disorder present, and whether treatment is necessary. Additionally, if you have any concerns about raising your bilingual child or want to know more about how best to support them, please contact a speech pathologist.

To make an appointment with a speech pathologist, give us a call at Generation Physio & Allied Health, we have a friendly team of professionals that are dedicated to changing the lives of our clients. All of our clinicians are mobile and come to your own home to conduct an examination. Give us a call on 1300 122 884 to book a consultation today.

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