March 25, 2020
by Mary Pat

How To Teach Your Child A Word in Any Language

So we know that vocabulary is very important for learning to read and especially for understanding what you read. Children learn a lot of words! Some estimates say that school-aged children learn around 3000 new words a year while children aged 12-17 are exposed to around 10,0000 new words from school text books alone. Multilingual children don’t necessarily transfer vocabulary labels from one language to another because they tend to acquire the words in the specific context in which they hear them We use our languages for different purposes (telling a story, telling a joke, playing with toys, playing with peers, telling news at school)  with different people (parents, cousins, grandparents, neighbours, teachers)  and in different places (home, crèche, school, playground, church) and naturally this affects our vocabulary. That’s why their vocabularies are naturally uneven in each language.  For multilingual children, it’s the total number of words across all of their languages that matters when testing their vocabulary. When children go to school in a different language than their home language- like Polish at home and English at school, their home language needs intensive support to keep on developing. And building the home language helps them learn the school language more easily. This post is about teaching words to children from towards the end of their third year. If you want tips for building first words, you can read here.


What does the research have to say about teaching vocabulary? (When I say teaching here, I don’t mean at school in a formal way. I mean what you can do in your everyday life in natural fun ways to support your child’s language development).

Dialogic Book Reading supports children’s vocabulary development. It takes a little getting used to but you can read all about how to do it here and here. You can start doing it from as young as 22 months of age. And it’s fun! In the second link, you’ll find two handouts you can print out and stick on the fridge to keep you on track.


What else works? Practicing vocabulary in a variety of rich, meaningful contexts helps multilingual children expand their vocabulary and remember the new words they’ve learned. Repetition and review are important. So see if you can find ways to weave words from the story you read at night into your conversation next day and make an explicit link back to the book. My little girl is reading Heidi at the moment and there are plenty of new words in it. She called out from her bed the other night; “How do you pronounce g-e-n-t-i-a-n?” I told her and then we had a chat about Gentian Hill which is near our house. Then a day or so later, we looked them up on Google Images to refresh and review. You get the idea- lots of chats about the words and examples of where you can use them. You can talk about the word and how it’s said and used in all of their languages. Maybe there isn’t an equivalent word and that’s worth talking about too.


You can give examples of words with similar meanings too (synonyms).  So if the word is astonishment, you can talk about words that have a similar meaning such as surprise, amazement, wonder and so on. And you can do this for all of the languages your child needs. Another way to work on synonyms in a fun way is to grab a piece of paper and put a word in the middle and see how many synonyms you can generate using all of your languages. And watch out for naturally occurring opportunities to draw attention to words. We were reading Astrid The Unstoppable at bed time and noticed how the verb say was used a lot for characters’ speech. There were very few other verbs to do with talking. So the next day, we just got a piece of paper and wrote down all the words we could think of that were about talking from whispered through to screeched. The more dramatic the better of course! When playing this kind of game you can also weave in strategies for generating words like searching your mind alphabetically to see what words crop up. Or you can categorise by features like volume for the words to do with talking.


So let’s say your child is reading in Polish and they come across a word they don’t know. You tell them and you have the chat about it. Then you can tell them what it is in English (if that’s your community language) and continue your conversation about the word using your home language. You can also use what’s called vocabulary bridging where you use your home language to support vocabulary development in the school language. You can read about it here. For older children who have started school (you can do this at a younger age too if is your child is keen), you can add in that the word is a noun, or verb, or adjective, or preposition. And then explain why. When reading together, let’s say you come across an unfamiliar word- last night we had salamander in Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets. Immediately, my little girl was asking “What’s that?” I wasn’t entirely sure- “Some kind of lizard” I thought but not totally sure. We read on and of course, the next line expanded on the meaning. So I’ve been trying (with variable success…) to encourage her to keep reading or listening as the meaning is often made clear when you read on further. (Technical term for this: contextual abstraction). You can also help your child use a dictionary to find out the range of meanings for the words and what kind of word it is. (Technical term for this: direct instruction).And again, you can do it for all your languages for the one word.


For school aged children (and younger depending) you can also look at the parts that go together to make up the word and how you can make words up from different parts. If we go back to Heidi and astonishment, we can talk about the sentence Heidi stood and looked at it, speechless with astonishment. (The stool that her grandfather rustled up for her) In that sentence, it’s a noun. We can take off the –ment at the end and turn it into a verb to astonish or an adjective Heidi was astonished. We can thinking of other words with –ment at the end and see if they work the same way. (Technical term for this: morphological analysis). Words where the –ment works are words like bewilderment, amazement, encouragement, advertisement but not figment or cement. Then you can have conversations about how these word parts work in your different languages which is great for building metalinguistic awareness and strengthening linguistic connections. It could also be things like how the adjective comes before (red house) or after the noun (teach dearg in Irish) or that the verb is at the start of the sentence like in Irish. This word awareness is an important skill for children to learn so that they can become independent word learners. For older children knowing a word will include knowing how to spell it and how to say it.


Other ways to expand word knowledge are:

  • Coming up with expressions that use the word in a non-literal way like it’s raining cats and dogs, green fingers
  • Does the word have a function? Like if the word is salamander, what can you do with a salamander? Look it up on line, see it at the zoo, avoid it! Or what can a salamander do? Walk, blink, swim etc
  • Where would you see or find the item if it’s a concrete noun? Or for something more abstract like entertainment you can talk about the different forms it takes: books, movies, concerts
  • What category does it belong to? A salamander is an amphibian (yes I Googled it!!) It’s an animal – so the wide category first and then get narrower.
  • Does it have an opposite? Like unruffled, unmoved for astonished.
  • Can you describe it using the senses? Does it have a sound associated with it? How does it smell? Feel? Look?
  • What is the first sound in it?
  • What’s the last sound in it?
  • How many sounds in total?
  • First and last letters? How many letters in total?
  • What words rhyme with it?
  • Put it in a sentence.


One more thing- you can weave many of these strategies into one game so that it feels more natural and fun. We did this recently at home while looking for something to do. I took out the Scrabble board and we played with new rules that we agreed together:

  • All the tiles out at the same time
  • Words in any language were permitted
  • Slang was allowed
  • We didn’t bother with scores

If you want to see what we made, go to the Talk Nua Facebook page here.

Can you spot the Irish swear word? It wasn’t me!! (Okay I added the –er but it is morphology, right?!!)

If you liked this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Let’s get talking!



What I read so you don’t have to

Joffe, V. (2011) Vocabulary Enrichment Programme UK: Speechmark


Restrepo, M., Morgan, GP., & Thompson, M. (2013) The efficacy of a vocabulary intervention for dual-language learners with language impairment. Journal of Speech Language & Hearing Research 56: 748-765.

January 16, 2020
by Mary Pat

Learning English at school: how long does it take?

How long should it take for your child to learn English once they start school?


If you and your partner speak home languages and your child begins to learn English when they go to school, you might be worried about how it will all work out. A key thing to remember is that language learning takes time; a long time. It’s a complex process and there are a lot of influencing factors. In 1979, Jim Cummins, a professor of education in Canada made a key distinction between conversational language (called basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)) and academic language (called cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). (Of course, it is more complicated than that and there’s a lot of debate about it but it is a useful distinction nonetheless.)


BICS is all about using language for the social purposes of chatting and playing with peers. It takes between one and two years to develop. That’s quicker than learning the language needed for school which is more formal and complex. And you can play with peers without needing to use too much language, initially anyway. That language for social purposes might develop more quickly isn’t that surprising really when you think of all the opportunities that children have for talking and communicating with each other at play time, when doing work together, and, at physical education. So English for conversational purposes, for playing and socializing develops quickly enough for children to connect with peers and friends. In one to two years.


The academic language (CALP) takes longer to develop as children tend to be exposed to it in school only. By academic language, I’m talking about words for concepts in maths and science for example: addition, subtraction, measurement, length, distance. More technical vocabulary that wouldn’t generally crop up in conversation. And as children progress through the school system, this academic language becomes more abstract and complex. Monolingual English-speaking children have a head start here language-wise. When the language of the school is English only, multilingual children who don’t speak it, have to learn the academic language faster to have a chance of catching up. When a child has good conversation ability, it doesn’t mean that their academic language ability is at the same level. We shouldn’t expect it to be the same. And if they’re “under-performing” academically, it’s not necessarily a sign that they have an underlying problem. We need to take into consideration how much experience they’ve had with the language of instruction. We also need to take into account how language-friendly the school is and how they support multilingual children to acquire the language of educationCALP can take between five and ten years for children to develop. (Some authors say three to seven years) So we need to be patient.


What are the best conditions in which children can acquire a majority language of education? One paper from the US synthesized the research on second language learners from 4 perspectives (foreign language education, child language research, sociocultural studies, and psycholinguistics). They reported that for children learning a majority language at school (their second language), the ideal conditions include:

  • strong home reading practices
  • chances to use the majority language in casual situations
  • educational programmes designed with L2 learners in mind that are well-implemented and
  • enough time dedicated to learning to read and write in the school language.


Children who have had little exposure to the language of the school need explicit teaching in order to learn the grammar. Children who have a strong L2 aptitude, motivation, and strong home language skills tend to be more successful at learning the language of the school. Effective community language teachers are those who have strong community language skills, are skillful in teaching methods and have proficiency in the child’s home language. According to that paper, it takes 3-7 years to reach proficiency. Younger learners take longer but are more likely to achieve close to native speaker results. This is more evidence in favour of supporting your home language as much as you can because that solid foundation makes it easier for your child to learn English at school.
The key point to remember is that acquiring language takes time and all aspects of the second language don’t develop at the same pace and at the same time. Some things take longer than others. So for example, your multilingual child who is being educated through English may have basic word decoding skills (being able to sound out and read a word) at similar levels to monolingual English-speaking peers. And at the same time their English vocabulary may lag behind their monolingual peers. The main parts of a story like beginning, characters, setting, plot can be very well-developed in English while their grammar in things like tenses, possessive forms, pronouns can be slower and develop later.


Why is this? Well it makes sense if you think about it. The skills involved in working out what sounds letters make and how to combine them and read a word are largely to do with perception and thinking and the skills works the same way for each language. Same with overall story structure. Those bigger components tend to be fairly stable no matter what language the story is being told in. But many aspects of vocabulary and grammar are specific to each language and they take time to master.

So what can you do to help? Strong home reading practices in your mother tongues will definitely help. When your child has a solid foundation in the home languages and early pre-literacy skills (things like letter and sound knowledge, print awareness and so on), then it makes it easier for them to learn English at school; like ivy growing on a house. You can learn about a research-based way to do this here.

If you want to find out how English grammar develops in children who are learning English as an additional language, be sure and sign up for email updates from Talk Nua in the box above.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Let’s get talking!


What I read so you don’t have to

Cummins, J. (1999) BICS & CALP Clarifying the distinction. Retrieved from 16/1/2020

Dixon, Zhao, Shin, Wu, Su, Brigam, Gezer, and Snow  (2012). What we know about second language acquisition: a synthesis from four perspectives. Review of Educational Research 82 (1): 5–60.


December 16, 2019
by Mary Pat

How to do Dialogic Reading with your child in any language

In my last post, you found out about dialogic book reading and how to use books as props for conversations with your multilingual child in whatever language you need. (You can read about the 11 Principles of Dialogic Reading here.

There are two words to help you remember how to do dialogic book reading and they’re PEER & CROWD. In this post, you’ll find out how to do them. You can apply the techniques in your mother tongues in order to support their development and foster closer connections with your child through reading together. At the same time, you’ll also be building mother tongue vocabulary and grammar.

PEER stands for Prompt, Evaluate, Expand, and Repeat. You can use the PEER sequence for almost anything you read with a child from books to street signs.

Here are some examples: PEER

What to do What to say? Why do it?
P  Prompt Ask your child a question or invite them to talk about something on the page. You can say Oh look! Point at a picture and wait for them to take a turn.


You can prompt the child to name an object on the page or talk about something in the story.


What’s this? What’s happening?

It focuses their attention.


It engages your child in the story.


It helps them understand the plot.


It builds vocabulary.

E Evaluate Think about what your child says.


Think about what information can you add?

This helps you to give a model of adult grammar for your child


Keep it short but grammatical so they have a chance to imitate.

E Expand Add a few words to the child’s response. If they say big dog, you can say The big dog is running.


If you need to, gently provide the correct response.

It encourages your child to say just a little more than he or she would naturally


It builds vocabulary.

R Repeat Ask your child to repeat the expanded or correct response in a no-pressure way. Can you tell me that? Once is enough- if they don’t repeat, it’s not the end of the world. It encourages your child to use language.


CROWD is all about what you can say to your child and the kinds of questions you can ask when doing dialogic reading to develop their language.

What to do What to say? Why do it?
Completion This is useful in particular for books that rhyme or have a phrase that’s repeated. For example, once your child is familiar with the story, you can say: Little piggy, little piggy and wait for them to say let me come in.


I’ve been doing a version of this with Harry Potter where I know my little girl can predict that it’s Malfoy or Umbridge are about to appear by slowing down my reading and pausing and looking at her expectantly and she naturally starts to predict who is about to enter the story.

It encourages your child to listen, attend, and use language.
Recall Talk about what happens in the story- you can do this when you come to the end of the book or you can do it in the car on the way to school or as you’re about to start reading the book. It depends on your child’s age.


You can talk about what the characters did- I like to keep this authentic and not testing so I might say things like I can’t remember how Little Red Riding Hood was saved. And then pause.

This builds your child’s sense of a story and its components.


It also encourages them to pay attention to details.

Open-ended questions Saying things like Tell me what’s going on in this picture. This gives your child an opportunity to use their language in conversation.
Wh- prompts This involves pointing to something in a picture and asking What’s that called?/ What does George use it for? What colour is it? This encourages your child to use their language and it also helps to build vocabulary by focusing not just on the name of objects but on features such as colour, shape, number, location, and so on.
Distancing My little girl loves to ask questions like If you were in Hogwarts, what house would you like to be in? If you had to marry Malfoy or Snape, who would you pick? Who is your least favourite person?


The idea here is that you help your child link the story to their own lives. Again, your question will depend on their age and interests.

You can have wonderful conversations about all sorts of things using this technique.


It encourages your child to use their language and imagination.


Here are some videos that show dialogic book reading in action:

Dialogic Reading from Denver Read Aloud Program.

Dialogic Reading with Katy

PEER & CROWD Demonstration

Using WH questions

Another CROWD & PEER Demo


You don’t have to do this with every book. You can also download two hand-outs to help you remember how to do PEER and CROWD here: DR CROWD Handout  and here:  DR PEER Handout

I’d love to hear how you get on so be sure and leave a comment below. If you like this post, please share with your friends.

Let’s get talking!


November 22, 2019
by Mary Pat

How To Read Together To Build Your Child’s Language Effectively

You can Another proven way to support your child’s language development (whether they have a language problem or not) is dialogic book reading. I’m going to cover how to do it in two blog posts as it’s too much to have it all in one go! Research shows that using the 11 principles below accelerate children’s language development. The books that work best are those with clear pictures, not a lot of writing, and an engaging story. (You’ll find a list of books used in the research at the end of the post. They’re quite old but will give you an idea of what kind of books to look out for.) You can start doing this from as young as 22 months old. The goal is for your child to become the story teller and for you to become the active listener. You’re going to assume the role of an active listener, asking questions, adding information, and prompting your child to increase the sophistication of their descriptions of what’s happening in the picture book. As your child gets used to being in the role of storyteller, you shifts more of the responsibility for telling the story to them. So, initially, you’ll be asking your child to name objects in the pictures and then later on you’ll be asking open-end questions like “What’s happening on this page?” Those kinds of questions allow your child to decide what to talk about. You’ll be encouraging your child through praise and repetition. And you’ll be encouraging more sophisticated responses by expanding upon what your child says.

Here are the 11 Principles of Dialogic Book Reading:

  1. Make sure you’re both looking at the same page or picture of the book. To help this happen, you can say Look! A cat! And point at a picture. It’s important to follow your child’s interest though and not be too directive. Waiting to see what they’re looking at before saying anything helps you do this.
  2. In dialogic book reading you can ask ‘What?’ questions like “What’s this?” (Personally, I’m not a big fan of this question as it’s not really that communicative to ask a question when you already know the answer. You could try instead saying “Look” and point to the picture and wait for your child to say something. You can use open-ended questions instead like “What’s happening here?Or you can start a sentence and let them complete it as in “Peppa’s sitting in a ……
  3. It’s also really important to wait for their turn.
  4. When they’ve taken their turn, you can add some extra information like if your child says “car” and you say “Yeah, Peppa’s in the car.” If your child doesn’t say anything in response to your question, then you say it the way they would if they could. When it’s natural to do so, you can ask them “What’s that again?” This is to encourage them to repeat the word in a natural way.
  5. Follow answers with questions. Once your child knows the name of a pictured object, you can ask another question about it. Examples are: “What colour is Peppa’s dress?” “What shape is the tree?” “What’s George doing?” “Who’s driving the car?” “What’s the frying pan for?”
  6. Repeat what your child says to encourage them and to let them know they’ve been heard.
  7. Say it the way they would if they could. This is called modelling and expanding and is an important thing that parents do to help language development. Make sure that what you say is always grammatical so “Peppa’s driving the car” and not “Peppa in car”. Expansions need only add a little information so your child has a better chance at imitating.
  8. Praise and encouragement is an important part of dialogic book reading. You can say general things about how you love reading together and so on.
  9. Shadow your child’s interests. Like I said above, it’s important to talk about the things that your child wants to talk about. When your child points at a picture or begins to talk about part of a page, you can use this interest as a chance to encourage them to talk in a natural way.
  10. Have fun. This is critical really! You can make reading fun by keeping it light and make sure turn-taking is happening. It’s important that the shared book reading doesn’t become like a teaching session so it’s best to read as you usually would and then occasionally point to a picture and ask “What’s that?” And so on. You don’t want it to end up being a Q&A session!
  11. When you do find yourself asking questions, aim for open-ended ones like “What do you see on this page?” “What do you like about this page?” “Tell me what’s happening here?” “Tell me what’s going on here”. Questions like this open up the conversation. They are harder questions for your child to answer so you mightn’t get a lot in return to start off. Be encouraging about any attempt and say it as your child would if they could. When it seems like your child has run out of things to say, you can add one more piece of information.


 Book Ideas from the research

Although these are from a 2010 study, I’ve found a lot of them on Amazon. My first choice is to go to my local library though. These are only in English. For books in a range of languages, have a look

here. Another great option is wordless picture books or silent books as they’re sometimes called. You can find lists of them here.

Book  Title                                                                                                                      




 “Fire Engines Anne Rockwell
Golden Bear Ruth Young  Rachel Isadora
Good Night, Gorilla Peggy Rathmann
Over in the Meadow Ezra Jack Keats
Peace at Last Jill Murphy
Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore! David McPhail
Rabbits and Raindrops Jim Arnosky
Road Builders B.G. Hennessy  Simms Taback
A Summery Saturday Morning Margaret Mahy

Selina Young

The Tale of Peter Rabbit Beatrix Potter
The Wolfs Chicken Stew Keiko Kasza
Animal-Go-Round Johnny Morris
See How They Grow” series Angela Royston
Bob-the-Builder” series Various authors
Clifford: the Big Red Dog” series Norman Bridwell
Dora-the-Explorer” series Various authors
The Backyardigans” series Various authors
P.B. Bear” series Lee Davis
Corduroy” series Don Freeman


This post is an extract from my book for developing all of your child’s languages. Be sure and sign up at to find out when it’s ready!

Let’s get talking!  


The Research: here’s what I’ve read so you don’t have to:

Akamoglu, Y. & Meadan, H. (2019) Parent-implemented communication strategies during story-book reading. Journal of Early Intervention 41(4): 300-320.

Lonigan, C. and Whitehurst, G.  (1998) Relative Efficacy of Parent and Teacher Involvement in a Shared-Reading Intervention for Preschool Children from Low-income Backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 13(2): 263-290.

 Towson, J., Gallagher, P. & Bingham, G. (2016). Dialogic Reading: language & pre-literacy outcomes for young children with disabilities. Journal of Early Intervention 38(4): 230-246.

Towson, J., Green., & Abarca, D. (2019) Reading beyond the book: educating paraprofessionals to implement dialogic reading for pre-school children with language impairments. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 1-16.

Tsybina, I. & Eriks-Brophy, A. (2010). Bilingual dialogic book reading intervention for pre-schoolers with slow expressive vocabulary development. Journal of Communication Disorders 43:538-556.

 Whitehurst, G., Arnold, D., Epstein, J., Angell, A., Smith, M., & Fischel, J. (1994) A picture book reading intervention in day care and home for children from low-income families. Developmental Psychology 30(5): 679-689.




October 23, 2019
by Mary Pat
1 Comment

The surprising way to support your child’s second language development

You speak two languages at home. One of them is a home language like Polish which both you and your partner speak. The other one is a community language like English. You feel most comfortable speaking with your children in your home language and you’re committed to keeping Polish going. You’re a little worried about how your child will manage with English at pre-school and later on, in school. And you wonder what you can do to help. Here’s one thing surprising you can do to help both languages along without having to sacrifice your home language or start speaking more English. It’s called vocabulary bridging. What’s it all about? Keep reading to find out.


First of all, vocabulary is really important for your child’s reading success. Reading success is linked with academic success. (You can read more about vocabulary in multilingual children here.) We have two vocabulary storehouses that are connected.


Vocabulary storehouses

# 1 is a concept store like the idea or concept of a dog. The concept store will have mental images, features of dogs like tails and hair and other categories like friendly dogs, big dogs, small dogs, and so on.


# 2 is a label store which contains the labels for the corresponding concepts. So dog in English and pies in Polish. When your child speaks two or more languages, a concept can be linked to more than one label. When your child is learning words, they’re making links between the concepts in general and the labels in each language. If your Polish-speaking child is learning English as their additional language and after they’ve learned Polish, the connection between the concept and the English label is initially weaker than the connection between the concept and the Polish label.  The good news is that you can use Polish to help their learning of English. You can use the stronger language (Polish in this example) to facilitate learning in English when it’s the less developed language. It’s important to remember that Continued L1 development is critical for children’s academic, social, and cognitive growth as well as for their cultural identity.” (Restrepo and colleagues 2010: 10)


For example, we spoke English at home when I was a child even though my mother could speak Irish. Then at school I learned Irish, Latin, and French all through English, my dominant language. Using my stronger language made it much easier to learn the other languages as I already had a structure to build onto. Like ivy growing on a house. After studying English for more than two years, children may not need this bridging as they begin to develop concepts and labels links more independently in each language. Your child relies on their home language to help them learn the school language in their first 2-3 years of learning it although the languages always remain connected.


What this means is, that if you suspect your child knows the concept/idea in Polish, you can use Polish to bridge the gap between the two languages to learn the label in English. You can talk to them in Polish about the English label. You can talk about how the languages differ in their grammar. For me, I do this with my daughter and comment on how in Irish, the verb comes at the start of the sentence and how in English, it generally comes after the subject. Here’s a really interesting article about how this language bridging can be done in pre-schools.  You could try some of the ideas at home too keep having conversations in your home language about the similarities and differences between your languages. (Because Irish is an endangered language bridging won’t necessarily be relevant for you if your home language is Irish.)


A 2014 study in Florida involving pre-school children learning Spanish and then English,  looked at two ways of developing vocabulary. One way was where children listened to storybooks read by an adult in English only and with no explanations of the vocabulary. In the other group, the children listened to the story in English and also received rich explanations of vocabulary in Spanish, their stronger language. What did they find? Where children got the rich vocabulary explanations in their stronger language plus listening to the story being read, they tended to make greater gains in understanding vocabulary than when it was just the adult reading the story repeatedly. There’s plenty of research supporting the practice of continual input in your home language both to maintain home language skills and build the second language.  


Another study in the US looked at vocabulary bridging in children who spoke Spanish and were starting to learn English in preschool. They put the children into two groups. Group 1 had two weeks of extra English vocabulary definitions when being read to in English. Group 2 had two weeks of extra Spanish vocabulary definitions when being read to in English. What happened? The children who had basic Spanish at the start and less developed English showed growth in labelling, vocabulary understanding and ability to define what words meant. Embedding explanations during shared reading was beneficial whether it was done in Spanish or in English. But when it was done in Spanish, that led to greater gains in the children’s ability to define or explain words.  Children with lower skills in both languages at the outset, made fewer gains in both groups than children who had stronger home language skills to begin with. (Read this for more tips on how to build your child’s vocabulary.)


Let’s say your child has an English book from school or the library. . (I’ll show you what this would look like in a minute).

So you’ve borrowed a book from the library that is in English. Maybe you’ve seen it at the pre-school and decide to borrow it. And you’re comfortable reading together in English some of the time. You can help your child’s language development in both languages by reading the book in English and giving explanations of words and events in the story in Polish.


You read the book aloud with your child. Then you use the book as a prop to have a conversation in Polish. You talk about the pictures in Polish, drawing their attention to things like facial expressions, the size of characters, the location where the story is happening. All in your home language.


Elaborated exposure is where you explain what the words mean, do some role play, or use gestures to explain the meaning. You can talk about words that mean almost the same thing like seat and chair. It also helps your child to learn the words and concepts if they can act out the meaning of the words when possible. Re-enacting the story together is a great way to do this. We used to use a red tea towel for Little Red Riding Hood’s cape and a little toy basket with toy food when my little girl was in preschool. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. When you encounter the words in other situations outside of reading together, be sure and talk to your child about them in your home language. Children generally love reading the same story over and over and while it might get on your nerves, it’s actually good for their vocabulary development to have repeated exposure to the words.


You can take things to another level by drawing their attention to words that sound similar in both languages. (These are called vocabulary cognates.) Like computer in English and computadora in Spanish.


Remember that understanding words tends to come before using them so it may be a while before your child uses the new vocabulary and that’s the way it goes.


Another effective way to build your child’s vocabulary is through dialogic book reading and you can read all about that in my next post. Be sure you’ve signed up so you’ll get an email to let you know it’s ready.


Let’s get talking!



What I read so you don’t have to….


Leacox, L. & Wood Jackson, C. (2014). Spanish vocabulary-bridging technology-enhanced instruction for young English language learners’ word learning. Journal of Early Child Literacy 14(2): 175-197.


Lugo-Neris, M., Wood Jackons, C., and Goldsten, H. (2010). Facilitating vocabulary acquisition of young English language learners. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 41: 314-327.


Restrepo, A., Castilla, A., Schwanenflugel, P., Neiharth-Pritchett, S., Hamilton, C., & Arboldea, A. (2010). Effects of a supplemental Spanish oral language program on sentence length, complexity, and grammaticality in Spanish-speaking children attending English-only preschools. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 41: 3-13.

September 30, 2019
by Mary Pat

What language should speech & language therapy be in for your multilingual child?

If your child has a language impairment or at risk of developing one you might well be wondering how speech and language therapy is going two work out. Especially if the SLT doesn’t speak your language. This is the first post in a series because there’s a lot to say on the topic so make sure you’re signed up to Talk Nua to get the next installment in your in-box. I’m talking here about language: vocabulary and grammar for example. I’ll cover speech sound problems another day. Deep breath now, cos this is complicated!


There are two issues here. # 1 should the intervention focus on home language only, community language only, or both? There isn’t a lot of high- quality research about this yet. However, a 2016 paper tried to synthesise the research on both bilingual and home language-only approaches to intervention to date for children aged 2-6. I’m going to share the main points with you here because it’s the most recent publication I could find. It’s also important to remember that most of the research covered is from the US or the UK. And I’m not talking about endangered languages (like Welsh or Irish) here.


The bottom line is that research and policies of a range of organisations recommend focusing on both the home languages and community languages of young bilingual children. Of the evidence that exits right now, the ultimate conclusion is that bilingual approaches to instruction produce the best language, reading, and academic outcomes. Home language intervention is important not only for improving language and literacy outcomes but also for helping young children maintain communication with their families who may speak only the home language. Several studies conducted in the US found that children in English-only early education settings demonstrated decreased rates of growth in their home language. One potential negative consequence of this decreased growth in home language at such an early age is less access to family conversations and the relationships in home environments that also foster school readiness and stronger language outcomes.


It’s part of the role of the SLT and early childhood educators to consider family needs and priorities in intervention planning. There’s emerging evidence that family communication patterns can be interrupted for both children with language impairments and those at risk when only English is targeted in language intervention and when home languages are not validated by practitioners. Limiting natural communication in a child’s home environment can affect the parent-child relationship deeply as well as affecting opportunities for communication.


Adolescents who do not speak their family’s native language have been found to engage in less conversation with their families and were more likely to feel emotionally distant. In groups of children who were already at risk for poor communication and attachment difficulties due to their disabilities, this risk of isolation and poor attachment can be made worse by professionals who are unaware of the negative consequences of advising families to drop home languages and use English. The same applies to professionals who ignore home languages during intervention. A monolingual approach to language intervention which focuses on the community language only cannot be justified. A monolingual approach supporting your home language only is a different story. I’ll post about that too another day.


There’s a growing body of evidence supporting the delivery of intervention in the home language for children at risk for and diagnosed with language impairments.


Interventions for children at risk of language impairments included three main approaches: #1 bilingual preschool programs, #2 supplemental small-group literacy interventions, and #3 individualised intervention programmes using parent-focused training and interventions delivered by parents through home-based services. 


#1 Bilingual instruction with at risk children: One series of studies used a transitional bilingual model where 100% of the pre-school day was spent using Spanish in the first year, and Spanish was reduced to 70% in the second year. The largest effect sizes were found on measures of Spanish receptive vocabulary and Spanish letter-word identification in the transitional bilingual model mentioned above.


#2 Supplemental interventions with at risk children using either bilingual or home language only: These interventions used trained bilingual staff or teachers and generally consisted of specific activities for improving vocabulary, phonological awareness, and more general language skills in Spanish and English. Studies used techniques such as vocabulary bridging (learning about both languages), enhanced storybook reading with targeted vocabulary instruction in the home language, child & parent literacy instruction in the home language. As usual, each study did things differently lasting from 3 weeks to 12 months and doing intervention once a week to every day. To cut a long story short: All studies indicated that home language instruction improved the language outcomes over the control group or comparison group.


 #3 Parent training in home-based interventions:

These kind of interventions, focus on training parents to prepare their children for school success. Other approaches focus on improving parent-child book reading, book making activities, asking questions that open up conversations and expanding utterances. All together, the research shows that parent involvement with book reading and systematic language stimulation techniques are effective for helping increase home and community language abilities in children who are acquiring two or more languages.


What about children who have an identified language problem?

The types of interventions that feature in the research so far tend to target language, literacy, and academic enrichment. What worked best? Dialogic book reading. (Don’t worry, I’m going to do a separate post on how to do this) In a study of 22-41-month-old bilingual preschool children with expressive vocabulary delays, intervention was provided in English and Spanish at the same time to a group of six children, while six other children were in a delayed treatment control group. Thirty 15-min sessions using dialogic book-reading strategies were provided in each language in the children’s homes; in English by the main researcher and in Spanish by the children’s mothers, who were trained in the techniques of dialogic book-reading. Results showed that the children in the intervention group learned significantly more target words in each language following the intervention than the children in the control group. The children in the intervention group were also able to produce the acquired words at the time of a follow-up test 6 weeks after the end of the intervention. The gains in the overall vocabulary of the two groups of children did not differ significantly. The children’s mothers expressed satisfaction with the program, and confirmed the benefits of dialogic book-reading for their children’s learning of target words.


Another approach that worked was the Vocabulary, Oral Language and Academic Readiness (VOLAR) programme, designed specifically for preschool, Latino dual language learners with language impairment. Research consistently report a large vocabulary gap in English between these children and their monolingual English peers. The programme also targeted oral language skills because children with language impairments need intensive and focused language stimulation to address their language delays.


To help children learn new vocabulary, the VOLAR teachers explicitly facilitated the child’s ability to recognise a new word, repeat it, explain its meaning, relate its meaning to existing knowledge and new knowledge and apply it to new contexts.


Both English and Spanish were alternated in a structured manner, and activities for each bilingual book were practiced in a small group lesson for four consecutive days during 9 weeks. Vocabulary and concepts were introduced in a Spanish lesson on the first day of the week and then the same words and concepts are taught in an English lesson, using the same books, materials and activities on the following day. For the remaining two days, the languages were alternated in different order each week.


On ‘Spanish days’ teachers read books such as La Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood) and teach target vocabulary (e.g. bosque and recoger). On the corresponding ‘English days’, teachers read the English version of the book and teach the target words in English (e.g. forest and gather). Within the VOLAR programme, the alternation of the two languages resulted in the allocation of half of the time to each language. While the teachers stayed in the target language for the day, the children could respond in either language to demonstrate knowledge and skills.


The results of the study showed that both typically developing dual language learners and children with language impairment can benefit from a dual language immersion programme such as VOLAR. Their developmental outcomes in the two languages provide further evidence that children with language impairment should not be excluded from a bilingual or dual language curriculum. Although the scores of the children with language impairment lagged behind those of their typically developing peers, it was clear that children with language learning disabilities were able to learn a second language, but may need greater support for their home language to prevent loss of that language.


It’s not just about the intervention though. A range of other factors also play a part in language outcomes. They are:


  • Current language exposure,
  • Home language environments,
  • Socio-economic status (usually measured by education level of mothers, household income levels, occupations- I’m simplifying a lot here!),
  • Languages of instruction in the classroom, and
  • Your child’s proficiency in each of their languages.


So, you can see how complicated it is! Essentially, bilingual approaches to language intervention produce the best language, literacy and academic outcomes. Twenty years ago, Vera Gutierrez-Clellen reported that there’s no evidence that a bilingual approach to intervention confuses children who have language impairments or that it would make things harder for them. Twenty years ago!! The SLT does not need to speak your languages in order to provide effective language intervention- I’ll cover how that might work in another post. In the next post, I’m going to go into more specific things you can do to help your child’s language when they have an identified language problem.

Be sure and sign up to get the next installment!

Let’s get talking


What I read so you don’t have to!

Durán, LK., Hartzheim, D., Lund, EM., Simonsmeier, V., & Kohlmeier, T. (2016). Bilingual and home language interventions with young dual language learners: a research synthesis. Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools 47:347-371.


Gutierrez-Clellen, V. (1999) Language choice in intervention with bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 8: 291-302.


Ijalba, E. (2015). Effectiveness of a parent-implemented language and literacy intervention in the home language. Child Language & Teaching Therapy 3(2): 207-220.


Simon-Cereijido & Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. (2014). Bilingual education for all: Latino dual language learners with language disabilities. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 17: 235-254.




September 5, 2019
by Mary Pat

The truth about multilingual children’s vocabularies

The truth is- it’s complicated! But there are some things we can say for definite and I’ve put those in bold.

Vocabulary means the words your child knows and uses; kind of like their mental dictionary. The size of multilingual children’s vocabulary has been shown to be a good representation of overall language ability. It’s important because it provides the building blocks to language development. And vocabulary knowledge drives the development of grammar. There’s strong evidence to connect vocabulary with your child’s later language and cognitive development. Having a large vocabulary at 24 months, has been linked to stronger performance on measures of maths, reading, and behaviour at age 5. Your child’s vocabulary growth is considered to be directly related to their overall success at school. The size of your child’s vocabulary predicts her ability to learn to read.

In a multilingual family, your child is acquiring two or more vocabularies. So they spend varying amounts of time being exposed or receiving input in each of their languages. That’s just the way it is. It’s likely that they’re not going to have the same level of vocabulary in any one of their languages as a monolingual speaker of each language would have. Why? Because they’re not 2 or 3 monolingual people combined. They use their languages to talk with different people (parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers) for different reasons (telling news, telling jokes, explaining how to play a game, answering a question) in different places (home, on the phone, on summer holidays, at school, at football, playing with neighbours). These three aspects of multilingual language development affect how their vocabulary unfolds.

There are many other factors that influence your child’s vocabulary development. Like how much exposure to the languages they’re getting. Vocabulary development is thought to be particularly influenced by the amount of input because building vocabulary means learning words one by one. Grammar is different because it’s made up of rules that have more general applications like plurals for example.

 Opportunities to use the languages are also important as is the quality of the exposure. It’s not enough to talk to your child in the target language(s). It’s how you talk with them. (Keep reading to find out how to do this.) Other influences are how alike or different the languages are (for example Spanish and Italian are closer than Spanish and Mandarin Chinese) and the statuses of the languages where you live. Children who speak home or minority languages are especially dependent on language exposure at home as the community doesn’t support their home language.

The vocabulary levels of monolingual children tend to be the measurement benchmark for multilingual children which isn’t the appropriate reference point. It’s not comparing like with like. As Elin Thordardottir (a respected researcher in the field) says “...bilingual children constitute not one, but many populations …[and] a single norm will not be able to be developed that applies to the bilingual population as a whole.”) It can be useful to have this information to hand though if you meet people who tell you that learning two languages or more causes language problems.

The research that compares monolingual and multilingual children’s vocabulary size has found that multilingual children have smaller, bigger, and similar vocabularies when compared with monolingual children’s! It depends on what is measured and how it’s measured. If you test an English-only speaking child’s vocabulary, you’re testing their whole vocabulary. But if you test a multilingual child’s vocabulary in only one language, you’re only testing only one component of their vocabulary. Not fair and not accurate. Studies which measure the total vocabulary of multilingual children have found that they’re the same size or bigger than the monolingual child’s total vocabulary. And when researchers measure what’s called conceptual vocabulary (basically the number of concepts or ideas that children have a verbal label for), both groups are similar.


So the bottom line is that speaking two languages or more does not disadvantage children when you measure total and/or conceptual vocabulary. Using monolingual norms to make judgements about multilingual children’s language development is a no-no. If your child’s vocabulary is being tested maybe at school or by a speech and language therapist, make sure you keep your focus on total vocabulary. And also think about the amount of exposure to the languages.

What else does the recent research say?

It has been shown that children who have dominant exposure to one of their languages have vocabulary sizes that are similar to monolingual speakers of that language. Even when tested only in the more dominant language. But not all studies have found the same thing…….One UK study found that a child needs to hear the dominant language at least 60% of the time in order to achieve vocabulary scores on a par with monolingual peers. But that presupposes there is a dominant language in your situation. That might not be how it is for your family.

And a 2017 study looking at 6 groups of bilingual children found large variability in the groups of children when it came to expressive vocabulary. (The language pairs were Maltese and English, Irish and English, French and Portuguese, Turkish and German, and English and Hebrew) They found that children could say more words in their L1 than in their L2 and had greater total vocabularies then conceptual vocabularies which is common in bilingual children. But not all children have a clear L1 and L2…..

There’s a lot of variation in the research and there are lots of studies that report smaller vocabularies for multilingual children. One study which looked at vocabulary in 1738 children between age 3 and 10 in the US found that that although the bilingual children had smaller vocabularies in both languages, the difference had to do with vocabulary associated with home environments. This isn’t an indication of a problem. Of course there was an imbalance because we use languages differently according to the situations we’re using it in.  When it came to vocabulary for school, the monolingual and bilingual children were more comparable. This means that bilingual children are not at disadvantage when it comes to academic performance, learning to read and write, and using spoken language for school related topics.  There’s a lovely line at the end of a paper by Ellen Bialystock and her colleagues: Bilingual children are constructing the world through two telescopes, and their two vocabularies provide the lenses.

A 2011 study in Canada set out to control for many of the influencing factors that I mentioned above. That study found a strong and systematic relationship between vocabulary development and the amount of exposure to the languages in the 5-year-old children who participated. There was a clear relationship between expressive vocabulary (looking at pictures and naming them) and the amount of exposure: more exposure led to higher scores. When it came to comprehension, it wasn’t so clear. They found that once exposure hit 40-60% in either French or English, increasing exposure didn’t lead to higher scores. Interestingly, they also found that when children started to learn the two languages at different times (before 6 months of after 20 months) but were matched for similar amounts of exposure to the languages, they did not differ significantly on any vocabulary measure.   What’s important to remember about this study is that fact that both languages were supported in the community and the languages are fairly closely related.  It’s important to remember the context of your child. What languages are they exposed to? When did they start being exposed to them? Are the languages closely related like Spanish and Italian, or distinct like English and Mandarin Chinese for instance. How much exposure are they getting to the languages? How much opportunity to use the languages?

Several studies have found that nouns tend to dominate in multilingual children’s early vocabularies. Just like monolingual children. All children need exposure to a range of different words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions so they have the building blocks they need to put words together into phrases and later sentences. Click here for tips on how to develop your child’s range of words.

If your multilingual child’s vocabulary is being assessed by a speech and language therapist because you’re worried that they’re slow to talk, make sure that all their languages are taken into account when counting the words. There are two instruments that SLTs can use to do this. The first one is the McArthur Bates Communication Development Inventories (CDI) which is available in a range of languages. It can be used with children up to age 37 months and includes words and gestures. ( The CDI is a measure of the words your child says. One limitation of it is that it doesn’t look at what your child does with the words they have. Things like labelling, commenting, requesting, protesting, rejecting, greeting and so on. It’s important to look at how your child communicates using the words they have too. For that there’s the Language Use Inventory which is also available in a range of languages It’s for children between the ages of 18 and 47 months. Neither of these instruments is particularly expensive. They’re definitely worth it.

How do you build your multilingual child’s vocabulary? I’ve got you covered. You’ll find tips that work here , and here.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends. And if you’re on Facebook, I’d love it if you liked the Talk Nua Facebook page. You can find it here:

Let’s get talking!


What I read so you don’t have to

Bialystock, E, Luk, G., Peets, K., and Yang, S. (2010). Receptive vocabulary differences in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism 13(4):525-531.

De Houwer, A., Bornstein, M., and Putnick, D. (2014). A bilingual–monolingual comparison of young children’s vocabulary size: Evidence from comprehension and production. Applied Psycholinguistics 35 (6): 1189-1211.

Hadley, PA., Rispoli, M, and Tsu, N. (2016) Toddlers’ verb lexicon diversity and grammatical outcomes. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 47 (1): 44-58.

Aneta Miękisz, Ewa Haman, Magdalena Łuniewska, Katarzyna Kuś, Ciara O’Toole & Napoleon Katsos (2017) The impact of a first-generation immigrant environment on the heritage language: productive vocabularies of Polish toddlers living in the UK and Ireland, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 20:2, 183-200.

Morgan, P., Farcas, G., Hillemeir, M., Hammer, C., and Maczgua, S. (2015) 24-month-old children with larger oral vocabularies display greater academic and behavioral functioning at kindergarten entry. Child Development 86(5): 1351-1370.

Monsrud, MB, Rydland, V. Geva, E., Thurmann-Moe, AC., and Lyister SA. (2017). The advantages of jointly considering first and second language vocabulary skills among emergent bilingual children. International Journal Of Bilingual Education And Bilingualism DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2019.1624685

O Toole, C., Gatt, D., Hickey, T.M., Mieksz, Haman, E. Armon-Lotem, Rinker, T., Ohana, O., dos Santos, C. and S. Kern, S. (2017) Parent report of early lexical production in bilingual children across varied contexts: A CDI study. International Journal Of Bilingual Education And Bilingualism 20(2):124-145.

Ciara O’Toole & Tina M. Hickey (2017) Bilingual language acquisition in a minority context: using the Irish–English Communicative Development Inventory to track acquisition of an endangered language, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 20:2, 146-162.

Rudolph, J. and Leonard, L. (2016) Early language milestones and specific language impairment. Journal of Early Intervention 38(1): 41-58.

Thordardottir, E. (2011). The relationship between bilingual exposure and vocabulary development. International Journal of Bilingualism 15(4): 426-445.


August 29, 2019
by Mary Pat

Six of life’s frustrations that are necessary for our children’s emotional development.

A few years ago, I did an interesting course with the wonderful developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld. (You can check him out here. ) I learned a lot about attachment. And the importance of frustration for our children’s emotional development and well-being. The general idea is that rather than subvert or avoid frustrating situations, our children need to feel the futility of something that they cannot change. And move from feeling bad to sad; feeling the tears of futility and accepting that sometimes there are things you cannot change or hold onto. One of his colleagues Deborah Macnamara wrote a great book called Rest Play Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like Oneif you’d like to read more about the approach. She has a list of futilities that our children will most likely encounter; life lessons that are painful and yet necessary to experience for emotional well-being. Here are the 6 that resonated most with me: 

#1 The pain of trying to hold onto good experiences like leaving the playground or the end of a holiday. I remember sobbing my heart out at the end of our annual trip to Dublin in the summer: no more bus rides, staying with the aunties, or eating Knickerbocker Glories in the Burlington Hotel! 

# 2 The frustration of trying to make something work that doesn’t. My little girl experienced this one day when she was about two and a half and wanted to wear a pink jumper with an owl on it that was now too small. 

#3 The fact that you can’t possess a parent or friend; sharing friends can be very hard and sharing your mama with others can generate intense emotions! 

# 4 The futility of wanting to send a new sibling back to where they came from. Being a youngest child, I haven’t experienced this directly, but I can totally imagine what it might feel like when an interloper comes along!  

#5 The futility of wanting to be bigger than you are– we are in the middle of this in our house right now where my little girl wants to be a grown up. She is very definite that she is a grown up and gets very annoyed if I call her a child. We were reading The Cursed Child ( a play about Harry Potter and friends many years later). At one point, Harry Potter says something along the lines that parenting is hard. Another character points of to him that growing up is the hard thing and it struck me that there’s a lot of truth in that.  

 #6 The pain of wanting to be wanted where you aren’t: not being invited to a birthday party, siblings or friends not wanting to play with you.  

 So, what can we do as parents to support our children through these painful experiences? Here’s what Deborah recommends:  

#1 Provide a clear and direct “No” to the request or agenda with little explanation. Of course, tone of voice is important here and you would need to say it kindly! (Not always easy, I know!!)  

#2 If you see that your child is feeling the futility (this can be subtle like a watering of the eyes, or more obvious sadness or crying), then you know that they are on the way to being able to adapt to the futility. They are being changed by what they can’t have or change.  

#3 Once they’ve accepted your no and adapted, then she suggests that you can share your reasons for the “No” 

Acknowledging your child’s feelings as described in one of my favourite parenting books (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish) will help here too. I remember when my little girl was very upset because her doll was in the washing machine and she really wanted her. I had been reading the book and somehow managed to remember about the feelings and said You really want your dolly but she’s in the washing machine. You could almost see the frustration drain out of her.

They also talk about giving your child what they want in fantasy which might seem counter-productive but in my experience does work. So the day my little girl was frustrated over the pink jumper being too small, I overheard her say to herself “I wish I had a huge pink jumper”. She had learned to soothe herself. And talking about what she might wish for often made her laugh when we imagined outrageous possibilities and took the intensity out of the moment.  

What things does your child find frustrating? What helps you be there with them in those moments? Be sure and leave a comment below.  

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Let’s get talking!


July 4, 2019
by Mary Pat

Three crucial things to remember about language development in bilingual children.

Dr Kathyrn Kohnert, a speech & language therapist and researcher in the US wrote a very interesting article in 2010 for speech & language therapists. Her aim was to explore how to best provide speech & language therapy for bilingual families. She highlighted three important features of language development in bilingual children that are really useful to remember. For parents, teachers, SLTs and anyone working with bilingual families. The ideas are the same whether you speak 2 languages or 4.  Let’s have a look :


#1 Language skills tend to be distributed across languages and vary over time. This means that it’s natural for multilingual children to know some words in only one of their languages. It’s not a case of two or three monolingual speakers of each language in the one child. A simple example is where they have words to do with home, family, and community in the language used there and then they learn words to do with maths and science and geography and so on at school. It’s important to know this because it means that you need to think about all of the words your child has in all of their languages. And it means that if they’re seeing a speech and language therapist, they need to have all of their languages tested. When their language is tested, it’s not unusual for multilingual children to do better on some tasks than on others. So, they might be good with vocabulary and story-telling in the home language and not so good at these in the community language, especially when they’ve just started school. That’s just the way it goes and it doesn’t mean your child has a language problem.


# 2 The languages interact with each other. Basically, the languages do seem to be stored separately in multilingual children’s brains, but they interact with each other. Multilingual people tend to mix languages and switch between them to different degrees. Children aren’t confused when they mix. You can only mix things that are separate to begin with and if you look closely, the mixed things they say are grammatically correct. For example, my little girl who has been immersed in Irish for about 5 hours daily since she was 4 was writing sentences that mixed Irish and English until this year. So she wrote Tá mé ag wearing sciorta in Irish. It’s I am wearing a skirt in English. It should be Tá mé ag caitheamh sciorta. She had the correct Irish grammatical structure, didn’t have the verb in Irish and so she popped in the English version in the correct place in the sentence. Not a sign of a problem- it’s a neat solution to the problem. She’s doing it less now. But what’s going on now is that she’s using Irish words with an English sentence structure. So Mercury is the planet next to the sun should be Is é Mearcair an phláinéad in aice leis an ghrian. But she wrote Tá Mearcair an phláinéad in aice leis an ghrian which is closer to English grammar. So when your child does this mixing , it might just be that they didn’t have the word they wanted in one language, so they popped in the equivalent word from another language- pretty cool when you think about it.


#3 Every one’s different and every multilingual situation is unique. In the research, even when children are matched closely in groups, there’s a lot of variation between individual children in the group and how they perform on language testing. And there’s also a lot of variation between groups of carefully matched multilingual children who speak the same languages. That’s because there are a range of factors that affect language development which are unique for every family. Things like the number of languages spoken, the ages at which children are exposed to the different languages, the opportunities they have to use the languages, their own motivation which can change over time, how similar or different the languages are, the social value attached to the languages and so on. Assessment of multilingual children’s speech & language skills need to take these three factors into account. Here’s an example of the kind of variation I mean: a boy’s expressive vocabulary can vary from 79 words to 511 words at 24 months of age and still be considered within normal limits! So, when looking at the research it’s important to remember that what’s true for the group may not be true for your child.

What about you? How does this fit with your situation? Let me know in the comments below.

If you’d like to read the article in full, I’ve put the reference at the end of the post.

If you like this post please share it with your friends & I’d be delighted if you liked it on Facebook too. You can do that here.

Let’s get talking! MP

PS this is an extract from the book I’m writing for multilingual families. If you’re not on my list already, be sure to sign up so you’ll know when it’s ready. You can sign up at the top of the page, near the title of the post. 


Kohnert, K. (2010) Bilingual children with primary language impairment: issues, evidence, &  implications for clinical actions. Journal of Communication Disorders 43: 456-473.

May 13, 2019
by Mary Pat

Can your child who has autism learn two or more languages?

If you’re a parent of a child with autism and you’re raising your child using two languages or more, it’s highly likely that somewhere along the way, you’ve been told to drop a language and only focus on one. Because after all, one is hard and two are harder right? Wrong! For multilingual children with developmental problems, Kathryn Kohnert, (a well-respected researcher in the area) says one is hard and two is hard. For multilingual children with a language problem, the underlying impairment will manifest in all languages, most likely because the problem is due to some underlying inefficiency in processing language input. Therefore, all languages are affected. And language skills tend to be distributed across the languages which is why it is important to assess all the languages.


In this post, I’m using the term multilingualism broadly to mean children who understand and/or use two or more languages in spoken, sign, or written form, regardless of the age at which they learned the languages (based on an Australian International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech). I’m also coming from the perspective that for most multilingual families, using two or more languages is a necessity. The social advantage of continuing on your multilingual journey with your child who has a diagnosis of ASD is that they can be fully included in important life contexts.


The good news is that children with autism/ASD can and do become multilingual. There isn’t a lot of research but there is enough to prove that if your child needs to be multilingual and has ASD, they can still be multilingual. It’s all about what they need the languages for. And dropping a language can actually turn an impairment into a handicap according to Kathryn Kohnert. Doing that limits your child’s participation in a range of contexts and can negatively affect their social, emotional, and educational progress. I like François Grosjean’s emphasis on the regular use of 2 or more languages – what is important is language use rather than proficiency or competence. Multilingual children with autism need and use 2 languages or more in their everyday lives. While multilingual children with ASD may never completely acquire any language, they still need to use two or more languages to function effectively and fully in their day to day lives according to Kay Raining-Bird and colleagues in a recent review of the topic.


It may also be important to remind your Health Care Professional HCPs that multilingualism is often a necessity, sometimes a choice, and in countries such as Canada where there are 2 official languages and Ireland where there are 3, also a right. If you run in to trouble with HCPs giving you the wrong advice, here  are some effective tips for handling the situation.


Let’s have a look at some recent research about having ASD & speaking two or more languages and see what it says.


In 2012, Kay Raining Bird and her colleagues in Canada surveyed 49 families who were multilingual and raising a child who had autism. 87% of the parents said that their reason for raising multilingual children was so that they could communicate with family, school, and neighbours. 79% of people reported that they lived in a bilingual city or country. The main concerns the parents had about raising a multilingual child who had autism was the lack of professional help or access to services and fear that learning two languages was too hard or would be confusing for their child. Parents were also asked to rate their success at raising their multilingual child who had autism. 21 parents answered this question and of those, 38% described themselves as somewhat successful and 2 parents described themselves as extremely successful.


Another Canadian study in 2012 compared the social and language abilities of 75 young children with autism who were divided into 3 groups: 1: monolingual language exposure, bilingual language exposure before 12 months of age and bilingual language exposure after 12 months of age. They looked at things like social responsiveness, initiating of pointing, response to pointing, attention to voice, vocabulary, when they said their first words and phrases. They found that bilingually exposed children with ASD did not experience additional delays in language development. And they didn’t find any significant differences between the children who were exposed to two languages before or after 12 months of age. They concluded that parents should not be discouraged from speaking two languages with their child who had autism. Or from introducing a second language.


Petersen and colleagues in 2012 (also in Canada) looked at diversity of vocabulary in English-Chinese bilingual and monolingual children with ASD looking at word comprehension and production. When compared with monolingual children with ASD, there were no significant differences in production vocabulary size or vocabulary comprehension scores. They conclude that their results provide evidence that bilingual English-Chinese preschool children have the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals. That these children can be bilingual without experiencing disadvantages in their language development.


Next up is Canada again where Ohashi and colleagues in 2012 compared a group of recently diagnosed bilingual-exposed children with autism aged 24-52 months with a matched group of monolingual-exposed children with autism. They found no statistically significant differences between the two groups on any language measure that the examined. (They looked at things like severity of autism-related impairments in communication, age of first words and phrases, understanding of language, expressive language, and functional communication.) Their results suggest that a bilingual language environment does not disadvantage young children with autism in the early stages of language development.


In 2013, in San Francisco, Betty Yu interviewed 10 bilingual Chinese/English speaking immigrant mothers who had children with autism spectrum disorders. The mothers tended to have deficit views of bilingualism where they believed that being bilingual made learning more challenging. Many of the mothers believed that it caused confusion or made things worse. Views which were commonly (and incorrectly) reinforced by health care and education professionals. Betty Yu concludes that families need support for their efforts at heritage or home language maintenance, reassurance that being bilingual would not harm their child’s development, and support for learning the community language. She reminds us that speech & language therapists should systematically support the development of home languages in children who have language problems. 


A 2016 review of 50 research studies by Uljarević and colleagues revealed that there is little evidence to support the unfortunate but widely-held view that multilingual exposure is harmful to the language or social development of children who live with developmental differences. On the contrary, when it came to studies of multilingual children with ASD, they found a positive effect on communication and social functioning. One limitation is the available pool of studies to review is small and the number of robust studies is also small so further research is needed.


Hot off the press is a North American study which involved 388 children with an average age of 26 months. They compared receptive and expressive language skills of multilingual children who had autism or other developmental disabilities with monolingual children who had autism or other developmental disabilities. They found that language milestones and abilities are not affected by exposure to more than one language. They concluded that bilingual caregivers can communicate with their children who have ASD in both languages without negative effects on their children’s language functioning. In their review of other research, they report how being advised to stop speaking your mother tongue or home language can actually increase the already high stress levels of parents of children who have a developmental disability.


Another Australian study by Sharynne McLeod and colleagues in 2015 involving more than 3000 children found that at ages 4-5 multilingual children with speech and language concern did equally well or better than English language-only children (with or without speech and language concern) on school readiness tests. They did perform more poorly on measures of English vocabulary and behaviour. However, at ages 6-7 and 7-8 the early gap between English language-only and multilingual children had closed. Speaking a language other than English at 4-5 years did not in itself, affect children’s academic outcomes at school and there was no evidence that multilingualism + concern about speech and language resulted in any kind of double delay in academic or behavioural outcomes. Basically, if there were concerns at age 4-5 (whether the child was English only or multilingual), this was the important thing as these children went on to have issues with literacy and mathematical thinking. But children who had typical speech and language development at 4-5 irrespective of being English only or multilingual, did not show evidence of problems later on.


So what does it all mean? Well, the available research indicates that children with speech & language problems and who have autism can and do learn two languages or more given sufficient and enriched opportunities in each language. Once again though, this fact is not yet part of mainstream thinking. The bottom line is that there is NO empirical evidence to support a belief or recommendation that children with ASD or other developmental disabilities should only be exposed to one language. NO EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE!!


The important thing is the high quality language input and social input i.e. opportunities to use their languages. Children from minority language families should be encouraged to continue to speak the home language. Recent research from Canada by Marinova-Todd and Mirenda this year, in relation to children with autism advocates the following:

The specific strengths and weaknesses, learning environments, cultural preferences and family dynamics that affect children with ASD and their families should be taken into consideration when specific language interventions are designed.


They also report that research does not support the practice of language intervention in only one language which is usually the language of the SLP. Multilingual children with speech and language challenges and developmental differences need multilingual intervention in order to help them achieve their potential and participate fully in society.


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The research:

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Fred Genesee and Ludo Verhoeven (2016) Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: a narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders


Sharynne McLeod, Linda J. Harrison, Chrystal Whiteford and Sue Walker (2015). Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes. Early Childhood research Quarterly 34:53-66


Mirko Uljarević, Napoleon Katsos, Kristelle Hudry, and Jenny Gibson (2016). Practitioner Review: multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders- an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Jouranl of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Erin Lamond, and Jeanette Holden (2012) Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 47(1):52-64.


Jill M. Petersen, Stefka H. Marinova-Todd and Pat Mirenda (2012) Brief report: An exploratory study of lexical skills in bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42: 1499-1503.

Kaori Ohashi, Pat Mirenda, Stefka Marinova-Todd, Catherine Hambly, Eric Fombonne, Peter Szatmari, Susan Bryson, Wendy Roberts, Isabel Smith, Tracy Vaillancourt, Joanne Volden, Charlotte Waddell, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Stelios Georgiades, Eric Duku, Ann Thompson, the Pathways in ASD Study Team (2012) Comparing early language development in monolingual-and bilingual-exposed young children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism spectrum disorders 890-897.


Catharine Hambly and Eric Fombonne (2012) The impact of bilingual environments on language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders  42: 1342-1352.


Stefka Marinova-Todd & Pat Mirenda (2016). Language and communication abilities of bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders.


Betty Yu (2013) Issues in bilingualism and heritage language maintenance: perspectives of minority-language mothers of children with ASD. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 22:10-24.


Yael G. Dai, Jeffery D. Burke, Letitia Naigles, Inge-Marie Eigsti, & Deborah A. Fein. (2018) Language abilities in monolingual- and bilingual-exposed children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 55: 38-49.