Language Delay and Teaching a Second Language

Language Delay and Teaching a Second Language

Parents frequently ask me about teaching a second language if their child has a speech or language delay. I see their point and understand why this makes sense.

I often hear questions like:

  • My son has very little words, won’t I confuse him by speaking two languages?
  • My daughter is learning more than one word for one object, will that be a problem later?
  • We use Spanglish at home, is that bad for learning?

The short answer to all of these questions is, you should expose your children to their home languages. Teach them their second language just like you would in the primary language. They will learn. In a society with increasing diversity and multilingualism, learning more than one language is beneficial for everyone even if a language delay is present. One language is not better than the other. Limiting the use of a home language has the potential to reduce meaningful interactions with family members. Furthermore, this can lead to less natural social interactions between caregivers and the child.

What does the research say about bilingualism and language delay?

A study conducted by Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, Thordardottir, Sutton & Thorpe (2005) concluded that exposing children with Down Syndrome to a second language did not have adverse effects on language skills. More research needs to be completed in the area of speech-language delay and bilingualism. However, as of now, it has been found that a language delay is no reason to restrict the use of a second language or teach only one language.

Bird et al. (2005) cautioned that the sample size of their study was small but overall, reported that bilingual children with Down Syndrome were found to acquire second language vocabulary on par with developmentally matched bilingual children without Down Syndrome. It is important to note that the level of bilingualism will vary across children and factors to consider include the level of exposure to a second language, access to speech-language therapy, parent’s language proficiency, intensity of speech-language therapy, IQ level of the child and having multiple medical conditions.

Let’s talk about Spanglish:

Language mixing (i.e., Spanglish) is ok because sometimes that is the way a second language is spoken in the home. However, I recommend (if possible) that parents consider speaking full sentences in one language to provide better verbal grammar. For example, you could say “Do you want water?” in English and then say “toma agua” (drink water) in Spanish. In this example, I’ve attempted to demonstrate that you can use both languages in a conversation but try to keep each phrase or sentence to one language. I recommend avoiding mixing two languages in one phrase or sentence. For example, “Do you want agua?” uses English and Spanish in one sentence. In my experience, I have found success in dividing language use by activity. For example, while participating in a game with cars and legos I will speak one language. Later in the day, I will use the other language while participating in a puzzle activity.

In summary:

Having a language delay does not mean that children will be better off learning only one language. Being bilingual is good for the brain so if your family is bilingual, go ahead and be yourself, keep your home a bilingual environment even if your child has a language delay. Always remember, the best thing you can do for your child is to provide a good language model no matter the language. 

For more information about bilingual children, check out my article, “3 False Myths about Bilingual Children.”


Bird, E. K., Cleave, P., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A., & Thorpe, A. (2005). The Language Abilities of Bilingual Children With Down Syndrome. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 14(3), 187-199. doi: 10.1044/1058-0360(2005/019).

Photo credit: PeterThoeny on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.