August 20, 2020
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on Are twins slower to talk?

Are twins slower to talk?


This is the first of a three part series about speech and language development in twins. Myself and Ute Limacher-Riebold of Ute’s Intenational Lounge are putting our heads together to look at the research and real-life experiences. Be sure to sign up for email updates so you’ll find out what we’re planning for you!

Rates of twin births have increased (almost doubled) across Europe, Australia and the US over the past forty years. In Ireland in 2016, the rate of twin births had increased by 22% over the previous decade. In that year, 2363 sets of twins were born in Ireland and 79 multiple births. And there has been a long-running thread in the research of an increased risk of mild early language delay in twins. Late language emergence is reported to be much more prevalent in twins (38%) than singletons (20%). Late language emergence is when children’s language development is found to be below what you would expect for their age and in the absence of other issues such as hearing impairment, for example. And in Study #4 (listed at the end), there was a higher proportion of late language emergence in identical (monozygotic) twins (48.1%) than non-identical (dizygotic twins) (32.6%).

Are twins really slower to talk? I’ve had a look at the most recent research I could find to see what it says. (Warning- there’s not a lot of recent, high quality research out there but I’ve done my best.) This post is going to focus on monolingual twins. In the next post, I’ll cover language development in multilingual twins. And in the last post in the series, I’m going to look at the research on the idea of twins having a ‘secret language’.

So while researchers have been reporting an increased risk of mild early language delay in twins for many years, a recent paper involving my colleague Ciara O’Toole points out that not a lot of research has looked at the potential benefits for speech and language development of having a partner in crime along for the ride! So the research itself has been biased. And not only that, but there hasn’t been a lot of recent research in general looking at language development in twins. From birth to 2 years of age, the research shows lower levels of language abilities in twins compared with non-twin children. Research shows similar findings for 3 year old twins. This twinning effect, as it’s called, seems to be more likely to occur in identical than in non-identical twins. And twin boys are more likely than twin girls to show late language emergence.


The main recent high quality study that has looked at speech and language development in twins over a period of time looked at a range of speech and language measures at ages 4 and 6 years. 1255 children from 627 pairs and one twin without a co-twin in Western Australia were involved in the study (Study #1 in the list below). The researchers wanted to find out if this twinning effect at 2 years persisted at 4 and 6 years of age. Essentially the researchers concluded that any twinning effect on speech and language development in twins decreases between the ages of 4 & 6. Except for when it comes to speech development at 6 years of age. The speech of the twins at age 6, was not progressing as fast as their non-twin peers. (It’s more complex than that though. It’s important to remember that a few speech errors on the speech tests that the researchers used at age 6 could be enough to significantly reduce the children’s score. And they may well grow out of those errors that were found to be present at age 6). More good news when it comes to differences between identical and non-identical twins. The disadvantage experienced by identical twins when it comes to speech and language development was largely erased by age 6.


Next up is a study from Ireland (Study # 2). It looks at expressive language development in 185 twins compared with non-twin children at ages 3 and 5. The researchers looked at expressive vocabulary. That’s the number of words children were saying at the two ages. The good news is that although the expressive vocabulary of twins at age 3 was slightly lower than the non-twin children, by age 5 that difference had disappeared.


But, twins born after shorter gestations or at lower birth weights seem to be at an increased risk of having less-developed expressive vocabulary skills at 3 years. Another study (Study # 3 in the list) found that an increased risk of gestational diabetes, taking longer to breathe spontaneously after birth, and growth restriction during twin pregnancies contribute to an increased risk of expressive language delays among twins at 2 years.


What happened to help the children in the Irish study catch up between 3 & 5? Attendance at pre-school with 98% of the children in the study attending a free pre-school year between age 3 & 5. (The other research looking at language development in twins and showing catch-up later between ages 9 & 11 is from before attendance at pre-school was common). Bottom line here? If you’re concerned about your twins’ language development at age 2 or 3, there’s a good chance it’s a transient issue and they will catch up. But if you’re concerned, it makes sense to consult with a speech and language therapist at that stage. The SLT can show you language building strategies that benefit your children at this point. Then, it is a good idea to have a follow-up check by a speech and language therapist at age 5.


Why is there a twinning effect?

Once again, there’s a lack of research. Possible suspects are things like complications before or around the time of birth, and differences in how parents of twins interact with the twins (not expanding on what the children say or doing less shared book reading, for example. But the results of study #4 don’t support the idea of reduced input from mothers as a factor in late language emergence). Other factors include a history of gestational diabetes, taking longer to breathe on their own at birth, growth restriction in utero, being an identical twin, and having one or more siblings outside the twin pair. These have all been identified as risk factors for late language emergence among twins. You can read here & here about language development in children who were born prematurely and/or who had a very low birth weight. (Those posts are not about twins but about the impact of low birth weight and prematurity on language development). A lot more research needs to be done to explore the reasons for twinning effects on language development further.


Study # 3 Risks For Late Language Emergence in Twins

Study #3 looked at the before birth (pre-natal) and around the time of birth (peri-natal) risks associated with late language emergence in 473 twin pairs in Western Australia. They report that twins’ early mental and motor development, at 6, 12 and 18 months, has been reported to lag behind non-twin children and to be associated with low birth weight, not family socioeconomic circumstances. But, research findings vary depending on what questions the researchers ask and how they go about answering them. And results aren’t always clear-cut.  For example, there are studies involving twins who were premature or had low birth weight and were found to have lower cognitive abilities than non-twin children. And there are studies that took low birth weight and/or prematurity into account when scoring test measures and then found negligible associations between prenatal & perinatal risk factors and late language emergence.


Basically, the results in this study suggest that difficulties in the prenatal & perinatal period are important in causing late language emergence in twins at age 2. They also seek to reassure parents that language issues in twins are not caused by reduced input from parents being busy caring for two babies simultaneously.

What can you do to help?

Caroline Bowen, an Australian speech & language therapist has a list of suggestions for how to help your twins’ language development along. You can find them at the end of her blog post here. The main advice there and from the NHS in the UK is to create opportunities to interact one-to-one with each of your twins as often as you can manage it. (The NHS tips are here.) You don’t have to do anything different for twins other than make sure you get into the habit of addressing them as individuals and not as a unit. You can find a wealth of free language development tips at Talk Nua. To get you started, click here  and here for posts on how to build your toddler’s vocabulary

How does your experience fit with the research? Be sure and leave a comment below. And if you haven’t already, please sign up so you can get the next posts about twins delivered straight to your inbox.

Let’s get talking!



What I read so you don’t have to

Study # 1

Rice, M. L., Zubrick, S. R., Taylor, C. L., Hoffman, L., & Gayán, J. (2018). Longitudinal study of language and speech of twins at 4 and 6 years: Twinning effects decrease, zygosity effects disappear, and heritability increases. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(1), 1–15. 2017_JSLHR-L-16-0366


Study # 2

Culloty, A. O Toole, C.  & Gibbon, F. (2019). Longitudinal Study of Expressive Language and Speech of Twins at 3 and 5 Years: Outgrowing a Twinning Effect. Journal of Speech, Language, & Hearing Research 62: 2425-2437.


Study # 3

Taylor, C., Rice, M., Christensen, D., Blair, E., & Zubrick, S. (2018). Prenatal and perinatal risks for late language emergence in a population-level sample of twins at age 2. BMC Pediatrics 18 (41): 1-9.


Study # 4

Rice, M. L., Zubrick, S. R., Taylor, C. L., Gayán, J., & Bontempo, D. E. (2014). Late language emergence in 24-month-old twins: Heritable and increased risk for late language emergence in twins. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57(3), 917–928.


Irish Multiple Births Association


May 6, 2020
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on How To Encourage Your Child To Use Your Home Language

How To Encourage Your Child To Use Your Home Language

So in your family you need two languages; one is a home language and one is the community language. You speak your home language (German) with your child and your partner speaks English with them- the community language. You and your partner speak English together. At the moment, your child spends most of her time with you as she is three years old. She understands German very well and tends to respond to you in English. You know that children tend to use the community language more when they go to school in that language and develop relationships with community language peers.  You’re wondering about how to encourage your daughter to use German with you rather than English. Is it just a phase? Great question!

The One Person One Language Approach can give rise to heated debate as people can have strong feelings about it. It’s worth considering where it came from. Originally, it was a description of what some multilingual families did an observation of language choices in families. It was never intended to be a recipe or a prescription for how to best raise multilingual children. And the research doesn’t support it as the single most effective way to become multilingual either. The dynamics are way more nuanced than a right or a wrong way to do it. And it depends on what your language goals are and they can change over time. Several elements are involved, some you have influence over, others you don’t. Let’s have a look at what’s involved. Colin Baker who is a well-known author in the field describes raising multilingual children as like gardening. You can prepare the soil and nurture it as best you can, carefully plant the seeds, get rid of weeds, and water your plants. But you can’t control the weather, sunshine, rain, an unexpected frost. And the outcome is uncertain. It all takes time and there isn’t a straight path from A to B.

Let’s have a look at what’s in the mix: the languages in question, how closely they’re related to each other, how different they are (are they both tonal or is only one tonal?), the amount of exposure to the languages, the age at which exposure begins, the quality of exposure (watching cartoons is not enough), the number of opportunities to use the languages, your child’s perception of a need to use them, innate language ability, motivation, the status of the language as home or community, what your child uses the languages for (home, school, religion, activities), your child’s personality and style of learning. You can’t control the nature of the languages or their status in the country you live in. You can’t control how your child responds to you and you don’t want to end up in a battle of wills. The good news is that you can focus on yourself and what you do.


Annick de Houwer, a researcher of multilingual language development reminds us that if it’s socially acceptable for children to answer in a language other than the one you use with them, then they may have no need to actually speak two languages. We communicate the social acceptability of language choices by our own ways of using the languages. It is in our interactions with our children that they’re socialised into learning what we expect from them in terms of which languages they use with different people.

You get to choose what language you use with your child. So in this scenario, you would only speak German with your little girl, no matter the circumstances. This would mean you using German with your little girl when there are people present who don’t understand German. So you’d always address your daughter in German. If you’re out and about and everyone is speaking English, you stick with German. If English-speaking grandparents are visiting, you stick with German. The fancy name for this is a monolingual discourse strategy. You’re encouraging your child to use your language when they want to communicate with you. You can do things like be much slower to respond if she uses English with you; like you have a hearing impairment. Some people talk about pretending not to understand- English in your situation. That doesn’t appeal to me though because it’s not genuine and your child knows you speak both. I prefer the being slower to respond tactic. You can say something like “What?” (its equivalent in German) if your child asks something in English. Depending on the age of your child, you can ask them to say what they want to say in your language. Ultimately, you have to work out what fits with your values, your situation, your child’s personality and your relationship dynamics. When I suggested to my daughter recently that we spend 10 minutes talking in Irish each day, she was really resistant. (She’s 9 and ½). As it turns out, she felt self-conscious about us hearing her use it. But I persisted- we set the timer on the phone and we had a treat afterwards. And now, if I switch to English in the 10 minutes, she delights in reminding me to use Irish! And for now at least, she’s happy to chatter away with me in Irish- for the 10 minutes anyway!


If you do stick with German and your partner does the same for English, then you’re supporting your child’s active use of both languages. There are gaps and contradictory findings in the research when it comes to what are called parental discourse strategies though. Here is a list of what parents have been found to do when it comes to responding to their children’s language choice. The strategies are organised from most direct (explicit strategies) to least direct (implicit strategies). Spoiler alert, #1 is considered to be the more effective for your child’s use of your language. Do keep reading though because there’s something else to consider. (And I think you need to take your own cultural context into account here and tendencies to be more or less direct.)


#1 Explicit correction where you explicitly ask your child to repeat what they said but in your target language. It looks like this:

Parent says: “Say it in German”

Parent says: “Say saft”

Parent says: “Don’t speak English with me.” Or “Speak German with me” would be more positive!

# 2 Clarification request

This is where you prompt your child to restate the utterance in the target language. It looks like this:

Parent says: “Say it again”

Parent says: “I don’t understand”


# 3 A clarification request with a yes/no question confirms whether or not you understood the child’s utterance by rephrasing what your child said into the form of a Yes/No question. It would look like this:

Child: I want juice

Parent: Du wilst Saft?

This is showing your child that you understood the other language but a potential problem with is that your child doesn’t need to repair the language choice. They can simply reply with a nod or shake of the head. So it’s considered a less demanding approach than # 2.


# 4 Restating what the child said in the target language but not in a question form. Same issue here in that it doesn’t require your child to repair what they said. And there is some research to show that children tend to continue the conversation without responding to what the parent said. (They just want to get their message across to you!)


# 5 Move on where you just continue the conversation by responding to what your child said without drawing attention to the fact that they selected the other language when talking to you.


# 6 You repeat your child’s mixed or non-target language utterance or you respond with a mixed utterance of your own. Doing this strongly encourages your child to use both languages with you.

There is research to show that children who are consistently met with the explicit correction of #1 above tend to become active users of the home language. The thinking is that these explicit cues communicate clearly to the child what the language requirement is. The other more indirect strategies may not be as effective because they’re indirect or too subtle. The explicit strategy lets the child know that the issue was with their choice of language and not with grammar or pronunciation in their utterance. It’s also important to remember that your strategy will most likely change depending on your child’s level of language ability in your language, schooling, changes in where you are living etc. Parents tend to change the strategy in response to the changes in family context. And that’s really important; it’s a tuned-in response. It’s not reasonable to expect a child with limited skills in one language to only use that language with you. So you might need to be flexible for a while and when you notice their language level improving, you can adjust your response strategy accordingly. Your relationship is key. And it’s important to think about your unique situation.


One drawback of OPOL is that it’s not always enough to overcome the might of the community language. One person just can’t pull it off on their own. Even if you are consistent in your use of German, this will not necessarily lead to your child’s active use of your language. According to Annick de Houwer, in situations where both parents speak the community language at home and one parent also speaks a home language, these families stand the most chance of having children who speak one language (the community one). The research doesn’t explain this fully but one possible explanation is that the frequency of exposure to the home language if only one parent speaks it isn’t enough. But it’s worth bearing in mind that there are lots of gaps in the research. And what’s true in the research is not always true for individual situations. It is important to not give up your home language and remember that it is a long journey which will have its ups and downs.


Here are some ideas for how to boost both high quality exposure and an association of German with fun, pleasure, and your relationship.


Reading together is a key strategy but not reading together as we might traditionally think. It’s all about how you do it and the basic idea is that rather than reading to your child where you read each page and tell the story, you use the books as props to start conversations. So you bring out the book or they pick it and you wait looking expectantly at them. They say something or point to something and you follow, adding in language to what they’re pointing at, describing what they seem to be interested in. Avoid questions like “What’s that?” Better questions are things like “What’s going to happen?” or statements like “I wonder what that felt like” followed by a pause. Tell anecdotes from your own childhood or books you love and have a chat about them. You don’t need to read the book at all! You can also use wordless picture books or silent books to kick-start conversations using books. You can find book suggestions and more tips here.


When they want you to read the story and it’s one that they know well, you can leave a space at the end of the sentence for them to fill in the word or two. You can also make use of a research based approach called Dialogic Reading which has been shown to develop expressive language. You can read all about how to do it here.


The same goes for watching German TV: it needs to be like a prop for conversation and you can use the Dialogic Reading strategies for watching TV together too. (You can read about them here. The reason watching TV doesn’t help language development all that much is that it’s not interactive use of language. Children learn language through interactions with others.


Something else to consider is how you might introduce your child to other German speakers. My colleague Nadja Herkner runs online groups for young children and their parents to increase experience with German. You can find out about them here.


For more ideas, contact me at for a free e-book with 25 ideas for supporting your home language.


Is it a phase? Well, Colin Baker talks about multilingual language development being like the moon, waxing and waning. And children do go through phases of seeming to ‘prefer’ one over the other. If however, you keep using your home language, then their understanding of the grammar is continuing and their vocabulary keeps growing. It’s good to think about how you respond when your little girl uses English instead of German and to have a range of ideas for things you can do together in German.


What I read so you don’t have to

De Houwer, A. (2015). Harmonious bilingual development: Young families’ well-being in language contact situations. International Journal of Bilingualism. 19 (2): 169-184.

De Houwer, A. An Introduction to Bilingual Development. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mishina-Mori, S. (2011) A longitudinal analysis of language choice in bilingual children: The role of parental input and interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 3122-3138.


If you like this post, please share it with your friends. Be sure and join our Becoming Bilingual group on Facebook for more chats about raising multilingual children. You can join here.

Let’s get talking! MP

April 16, 2020
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on 8 Things To Remember If Your Multilingual Child Needs Speech & Language Therapy

8 Things To Remember If Your Multilingual Child Needs Speech & Language Therapy

#1 multilingual children have two separate language systems from early on and they don’t get confused.  Yes the languages influence each other but that’s not a sign of confusion. In fact, it’s a sign of separateness. You can only mix what was separate to begin with. Newborn infants have been found to distinguish between two different languages. In fact, this ability is considered to be robust at birth in all children. Very young bilingual children often know words for the same thing in both of their languages. They don’t always keep the languages separate when they speak and that’s okay. It’s not a sign of disorder or confusion. Multilingual adults tend to do it to varying degrees and children learn their patterns of language use from those around them. You don’t have to keep the languages separate to avoid confusion– they’re already separate from the get go. The research doesn’t support a one person, one language approach as the optimum way to raise multilingual children.


# 2 When assessing a multilingual child’s vocabulary, total vocabulary is what’s important. That means all the words they know in all of their languages. Why? Because it gives the best indicator of their language learning capacity. You can exclude words that sound similar in the languages. Bilingual children’s rate of total vocabulary growth is equal to or greater than monolingual children’s rate of total vocabulary growth.


#3 Multilingual children are not in the process of becoming monolingual speakers of each of their languages. An important point to think about here is the tendency to compare multilingual children’s language development with that of monolingual children. There’s a long tradition of this in the research, partly to dispel the myth that multilingualism causes speech and language problems. How can monolingual language development be the benchmark against which multilingual children’s language development is measured though? It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Sure, they’re both fruit so they have that in common but they’re very distinct fruit. Monolingual children are in the process of acquiring one language only. Multilingual children are not in the process of learning two or more languages in the same way. They’re not becoming monolingual speakers of each of their languages. Balanced languages? An illusion. There’s a lot of variability between language development in multilingual children because of all the influencing factors in the mix. Even when researchers group multilingual children together, they get a lot of variation within the group. Resist the urge to compare multilingual children with monolingual speakers of any of their languages. It’s not a legitimate comparison. The range of typical language development in multilingual children is wide.


#4 Bilingual children can have different strengths in each language as they have different experiences with different people in different places. So they may know words to do with home and family in their home language and words to do with school subjects in the school language. They may have similar levels of understanding in both languages but be better expressively in one compared to another. At a particular time. They might do well in a test of story grammar (where the story is set, the characters, the problem etc) but not as well when it comes to sentence length. At a particular time. Language development in multilingual children is not a uniform upwards trajectory across all languages and language skills over time. That’s why a range of language skills need to be measured in a range of contexts across time.


#5 The quantity and quality of input in each language influences language development rates. Children’s language develops more rapidly in the language that they hear more of and have more opportunities to use. As their levels of exposure change because of things like grandparents visiting for extended periods, summer holidays in the home language country, changes in child care, then their skill levels change too. It’s not all about quantity though. Quality of input is important too. You need to use a range of different words and types of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions) and complex sentences as they get older. Reading together helps you do this and is better for language development than watching TV. Hearing your home language from a range of different native speakers is better than the same number of hours of language exposure from fewer speakers. More speakers means more child-directed speech and richer, more variable input. And it’s good for language development for your to child to process input from different speakers. Input from native speakers is better for language development than input from non-native speakers. This means that if English is not your native language and you’re not that comfortable speaking it, that you’re better off focusing on your home language. For English, it’s about finding opportunities for your child to interact with native speakers but not about reducing your use of your home language.


A large scale Australian study from 2016 found that after input and opportunities to  use home languages, the other things that helped language development and maintenance of home languages were parents using the home language, the presence of a grandparent in the home, the use of family (informal) childcare, & migration to an English-dominant country in recent generations.


#6 If you are a parent who is also immigrant, then it’s really important to keep speaking your language with your children because home languages are part of cultural heritage passed from generation to generation. Children in immigrant families who speak the home language tend to have better family relationships and stronger ethnic identities than those who can’t. Studies in the U.S. involving immigrant children have found that teenagers who speak both their home language and the community language are more likely to graduate from high school and to develop close family and cultural connections associated with social and emotional health and well-being.  Good family relationships and strong ethnic identity are associated with other desired outcomes such as academic achievement. It’s most likely easier to provide more nuanced and more cognitively stimulating input to your children in your home language. And easier to connect emotionally and form attachments. And children who are good at reading in their home language, tend to be good at reading in a second language. So you can help your child’s second language development by focusing on school-relevant skills like reading in your home language.


# 7 Bilingual environments vary enormously in the support they provide for each language, with the result that bilingual children vary widely in their bilingual language skills. There’s no ‘average’ bilingual experience or ‘average’ bilingual skill profile. Every home is different in terms of how much of each language is being spoken, the number of speakers of each language, the proportion of each language coming from native speakers, how much interaction happens between parents and children, the richness of the language used, the amount of reading together. When one parent is the only speaker of a home language, then the community language tends to dominate. Children who go to school in the community language tend to use it more at home which has the effect of increasing others’ use of the community language at home too. This means that multilingual children with older siblings are likely to have more advanced English and a less developed home language than children of the same age who don’t have older siblings. If your child is dividing their time between two households, then the patterns of language use may vary across the households. This all means that if you’re attending an SLT, the SLT needs to explore your child’s language experience in all contexts from home to child care, school to playing with peers, out of school activities, summer holidays and so on.



#8 When skills in both languages are considered, children who speak two or more languages are not at greater risk for speech and language impairment than monolingual children.  A large scale Australia study published in 2015 found that speaking a language other than English at 4-5 years did not in itself, affect children’s academic outcomes at school. The researchers found no evidence that multilingualism in combination with speech and language concerns resulted in a “double delay” in academic or behavioral outcomes. At age 6-7 and 8-9, any early gaps between multilingual children and English-only speaking children on things like vocabulary had closed. Academic outcomes at school were more related to whether or not their parents were concerned about their children’s speech and language skills at 4-5 years of age, than children’s being multilingual.

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:

Hoff, E. & Core, C. (2015) What clinicians need to know about bilingual development. Seminars in Speech & Language 36: 89-99.

Hammer, C., Hoff, E., Uchikoshi, Y., Gillan ders, C., Castro, D., & Sandilos, L. (2014) The language and literacy development of young dual language learners: a critical review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 29: 715-733

Hoff, E. & Ribot, K. (2017) Language growth in English monolingual and Spanish-English bilingual children from 2.5-5 years. The Journal of Paediatrics 190:241-245

McLeod, S. Harrison, L., Whiteford, C., & Walker, S. (2015) Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes at school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 34: 53-66.

Place, S. & Hoff, E. (2011) Properties of dual language exposure that influence two year old’s bilingual proficiency. Child Development 82 (6): 1834-1849

Verdon, S., McLeod, S. and Winsler, A. (2014) Language maintenance and loss in a population study of young Australian children.  Early Childhood Research Quarterly 29:168-181.

March 25, 2020
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on How To Teach Your Child A Word in Any Language

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
Comments Off on How to do Dialogic Reading with your child in any language

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
Comments Off on How To Read Together To Build Your Child’s Language Effectively

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

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.

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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.