August 29, 2019
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on Six of life’s frustrations that are necessary for our children’s emotional development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 4, 2019
by Mary Pat

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

May 13, 2019
by Mary Pat

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


If you like this post, please share with your friends! If you want the e-book version of this post, be sure to check out the Free Stuff page on the website.

Let’s get talking!


The research:

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

April 26, 2019
by Mary Pat

What to expect from a speech and language therapy assessment

So you’re a parent of a bilingual little girl who has just turned three. She doesn’t use very many words but she is interested in interacting and seems to understand a lot. You’d like to know her language level. You’d like a speech and language therapist (SLT) to assess her. How do SLTs do this? Read this post to find out what you can expect to happen during an SLT assessment.

Now of course, what happens will vary from situation to situation depending on the reason your child was referred but I’m keeping it simple here with a focus on a child who might be late to talk. And it’s important to remember that assessment is a process that takes time. You don’t always get a clear answer after the first session. And the idea of a language level is complex!


What to expect from your SLT assessment:

# 1 General discussion with you about your concerns- questions like:

  • What are you most concerned about? When did you start to get concerned? What made you become concerned?
  • Have you seen your child learn more words over time?
  • Questions about your child’s early development like was everything okay in the pregnancy and birth?
  • How is your child’s hearing? Has it been tested lately? Have they had ear infections?
  • What is a typical day in your child’s life like? What’s the daily routine?
  • How are they currently communicating? What do they like to communicate about?
  • Who they spend most of their time with? Where do they spend their time? At home? Day care? Play groups? How much time in each?
  • If they’re in day care is it monolingual or multilingual?
  • How many languages do they need to learn?
  • What languages are they currently exposed to? How much of each language (roughly)?
  • Who speaks what language to whom?
  • What languages are they overhearing?
  • At what age(s) did they start being exposed to the different languages? Both from birth? One first and then another one later?
  • Which language do they speak best in?
  • When did they say their first word? What kinds of words are they using (nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions- you can read more about early words )
  • How about understanding the different languages?
  • What games do they like to play? Favourite toys?
  • Do you enjoy sharing books together? How often would you read together?
  • How much of your child’s speech can you understand?


#2 Next up would be some measures of your child’s languages – the words they’re understanding and using in all of their languages. There’s a serious lack of resources for SLTs to test all the languages that their clients speak. That means that the SLT may have to rely on informal observations as opposed to tests. But there are some options like the McArthur Bates Communicative Development Inventories which are available in a range of languages. (The SLT would have to contact the authors of the particular language version in question to see if it’s suitable for your child). This inventory looks at language development from earliest signs of comprehension or first non-verbal gestures, to early vocabulary used and the beginnings of grammar. It’s suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 37 months. And it’s available in a range of languages. Basically, there are lists of words and you tick if your child uses them.


Another option is the Receptive and Expressive Emergent Language Scale (REEL 3) which starts from birth to 3 years and although not designed with bilingual children in mind, the information does give insight into a child’s language development. It looks at understanding and use of language and has a vocabulary checklist too. The SLT could take all the languages into account when using this test and look at the answers you give as opposed to relying on the scores. I also  like Amy Wetherby’s First Words Project which you can access here.  There’s useful information 16 gestures by 16 months and 16 actions with objects by 16 months. The website and materials are available in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. A word of caution though- some of the gestures or objects for example may not be relevant to your culture so just bear this in mind.


# 3 It’s also important to think about what your child does with the words they have. It’s not enough to have lots of words, your child needs to use them to communicate. There are other checklists like the Pragmatics Profile (by Dewart and Summers, available here.) This will help identify the way your child communicates using their whole body, sounds, gestures and words. How do they get your attention? Do they greet familiar people and wave bye bye for example? Do they reject something that they don’t like? How do they do that? With words? Facial expression? Pushing the thing away and saying no? There’s also the option of the Language Use Inventory which is being adapted in 10 languages across the world. You can find out more about it here. You might also be asked about any word combinations that your child is using. And if they mix the languages. (Mixing languages isn’t a problem- you can read more about that here. )


# 4 Language samples: this means the SLT would collect samples of your child talking with different people in different places. (Either video or audio recording) Like at home with you, in day care with friends, in day care with the staff, at home with siblings and so on. The idea here is that language varies according to who your child is talking with, where the talking is happening, and what they’re talking about. An interpreter might also be involved for testing in the languages other than the community language.


# 5 Your child’s speech So far we’ve talked about your child’s language- the words they understand, use, and combine. The SLT will also take into consideration the way your child pronounces their words- their speech. They might ask you to fill out the Intelligibility in Context Scale which is available in a range of languages here. It’s got 7 items. Things like Do you understand your child? Do immediate members of your family understand your child?  You circle one of the following options: Always Usually Sometimes Rarely Never. The SLT may get your child to name some pictures to get a map of the sounds they’re using and may also ask your child to make some individual sounds like /k/ or /s/ for example. There’s a useful book called Difference or Disorder that gives information about a range of languages in terms of the speech sounds and the grammar. (Here’s the link)


While all of this is going on the SLT will be observing your child; listening to the quality of their voice, watching out for signs of stuttering, making notes of the speech sounds they’re using, their teeth, use of a soother/pacifier, observing their play, looking at gestures and working out what other investigations they need to make. So while on the surface it might look a lot like playing and having fun, you can see that there’s a LOT going on! It’s not straightforward and it takes time to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to work out if your child has a speech, language, or communication impairment. Establishing the language level your child is functioning at is complex. It’s important to remember that especially when it comes to multilingual children, there is a lot of individual variation in how children’s languages develop. Even if you have a group of children speaking the same two languages, you get a lot of variation. Thinking in terms of the age your child is and comparing them with others of the same age isn’t that helpful to be honest as, once again, there is a lot of individual variation. Here’s a video explaining three crucial things about multilingual children and their language development.

If you’re an SLT reading this, what else would you add in? Be sure to leave a comment below.

If you’re a parent reading this and worried about your child’s language development, what would you like your child to be able to language-wise? Be sure and leave a comment below.

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Let’s get talking! MP

March 12, 2019
by Mary Pat

6 Reasons Why Dropping A Language Is A Bad Idea

So you’re a multilingual family, you’re worried about your child’s speech and language development, and a health care professional has told you to focus on one language only. Here are 6 reasons why that advice is wrong.

#1 It shows a lack of understanding about how multilingual language development happens a.k.a they don’t know what they’re talking about but it doesn’t stop them giving wrong advice!

For multilingual children, language skills are distributed across all of their languages. Their skills vary depending on the task that they’re doing and who they’re talking to. You’re not raising 2 monolingual speakers of each language in the one child. Balance is an illusion.  As babies and toddlers and pre-schoolers, your child’s home language may be the dominant one. They’ll have vocabulary to do with home, family, books, television, and play in their home language. Later then when they go to school, they develop school-related vocabulary. They may not have these words in their home language because they don’t use the education language at home.  They may tell stories differently in their home language as opposed to telling stories for school. This is normal for multilingual children. So dropping your home language and focusing on the less developed language puts your child at even more of a disadvantage. Why? Because by dropping languages, your child is prevented from using their stronger language to develop the weaker language.

 #2 Focusing on one language is not a cure for language problems in multilingual children, and it won’t improve things either- quite the opposite! The “dropping a language” approach takes language out of its social context. It forgets that the point of language is to communicate, to connect, to signal identity, to empathise, to entertain, to play, to create, to imagine ……. As Kathryn Kohnert ( a respected researcher in the area) explains: “Language and communication are part of a dynamic system that can be expanded with rich input and diverse opportunities for learning and use”.


#3 It presupposes that using two or more languages is a choice

Using two or more languages in your everyday life is not necessarily a choice. It’s more a description of what you need in your life circumstances. Your child needs two or more languages to communicate successfully in different environments with different people for different purposes. Focusing on only one language means that your child would become monolingual in a multilingual family or community. This makes language problems worse because it means cutting off a whole set of language skills. And doing so can isolate your child from family members such as grandparents and cousins. And it can also isolate them within their local community. As Kathryn Kohnert so eloquently puts it: “Discounting one of the languages limits [your child’s] resources, negates previous communication experience, and denies future opportunities.”


#4 Being multilingual does not make language problems worse

Monolingual children who have language problems learn language (yes more slowly and maybe not to the same level as their unaffected peers). And multilingual children who have language problems learn their languages at a slower pace and maybe not to the same level as their bilingual peers who don’t have language problems. But they can get to the same level as their monolingual peers who have language problems if given similar language opportunities.


#5 Working on both languages in speech and language therapy doesn’t have a negative effect on the community language

There’s evidence to show that bilingual vocabulary treatment with preschool children benefits both the community language as well as the home language. There’s enough research to show that supporting the home language in young bilingual children who have language delay, makes it easier to learn a second language. So working on both languages benefits both languages which is what bilingual children need. By not focusing on the home language in pre-schoolers and instead focusing on the majority language, the language problems could actually be made worse. Because in that scenario, you get rapid erosion of the home language coupled with slow learning of the second language. It’s not fair to expect a child with language problems to learn the second language without being able to use their home language to help them.


#6 There are distinct cognitive and social advantages to being multilingual

Being bilingual gives children distinct advantages cognitively and socially. Better problem solving. A larger working memory and not just for tasks that involve language. Greater earning potential. Being multilingual delays the onset of dementia and multilingual people who experience language problems after having a stroke tend to have better language outcomes. (Now of course the research isn’t as black and white as that but there are documented advantages)


For most people, two or more languages in their family is the way of their life. When it comes to multilingual children with language problems, Kathryn Kohnert puts it like this: “Should children with varying degrees of physical co-ordination, artistic ability, or aptitude for maths be encouraged to engage in sports, drawing/painting, or algebra? Most people would say Of Course!” You wouldn’t dream of telling a child who wasn’t great at PE to stop trying different physical activities. So why would it be any different when it comes to languages?


When it comes to speech and language therapy then, the bottom line is that intervention for multilingual children must explicitly support all languages needed by them. They need their languages in order to access and succeed in the different areas of their lives. This includes family relations, school, their local community, hobbies, etc.. Lifelong goals for academic and job-related achievements along with social, emotional, and communicative well-being are important for all children. Focusing on only one language may mean that intervention is less effective. And it can also have negative knock-on effects on the child’s participation in their community which isn’t justifiable.


Dropping a language is a problem because it’s like telling someone who is right handed to stop using their left hand completely. Try doing that for a while and see how you get on!

Hope you like the post! Please pass it onto your friend!

Let’s get talking!


What I read so you don’t have to:


Kathryn Kohnert (2013). Language disorders in bilingual children and adults. Oxford: Plural Publishing.


Pham, Kohnert, & Mann (2011). Addressing clinician–client mismatch: a preliminary intervention study with a bilingual Vietnamese–English pre-schooler.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 42:401-422.


Elin Thordardottir (2010). Towards evidence-based practice in language intervention for bilingual children. Journal of Communication Disorders 43:523-537.


February 6, 2019
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on Can your child who has Down syndrome learn two or more languages?

Can your child who has Down syndrome learn two or more languages?

If you’re a parent of a child with Down syndrome and you’re raising your child using two languages or more, it’s possible that somewhere along the way, you’ve been told to drop one of  language. After all, children with Down syndrome struggle with language development so wouldn’t it be easier to focus on just one language only? This is simply not true. “Common sense” is wrong in this case. The research tells us that health care professionals should support you in raising your child who has Down syndrome as a multilingual child. In fact, dropping a language can actually make things worse. It can end up limiting your child’s participation in a range of situations. It can negatively affect their social, emotional, and educational progress.

If your child has Down syndrome and needs to use 2 or more languages in their everyday lives, then that is what they need. While multilingual children with Down syndrome will of course vary in the degree to which they acquire their languages, they still need to use two or more languages to function effectively and fully in their day to day lives. Multilingualism isn’t always a choice. And if it is a choice, children with Down syndrome can become multilingual. (Remember multilingual does not mean fluent in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Language abilities in these 4 modes vary across languages in multilingual children in general. And children with Down syndrome will have cognitive and language challenges but this still doesn’t mean they can’t acquire two or more languages.)

So what does the research actually tell us? Now, compared with topics like being a late talker or having developmental language disorders, there isn’t a lot of research involving multilingual children with Down syndrome. But here’s what I found from 1993 – 2016. More research definitely needs to be done. Many of the studies only involve small numbers of participants. And what’s true for someone in a study may not be true for your situation. And all research has limitations. Bearing all that in mind, let’s have a look at what’s out there.

One study in 1993 involved a 23 year old Italian woman with Down syndrome who had been exposed to English, French, and Italian since childhood. When her languages were tested, she was able to have conversations in all three languages and understand English television shows. Her French abilities were weaker because it was the language she spoke least often. Nothing to do with having Down syndrome then- that would be the same pattern for any multilingual person.

Another study involved twins with Down syndrome who were born to deaf parents. They learned both English and British Sign Language to the point where they could communicate effectively in both. Yes, they showed impairments in both languages compared with monolingual children but that’s not that surprising. They also showed a preference for English even though BSL was the home language. But most multilingual children show preferences for their different languages at different times and in different settings.

A 2005 study by Kay Raining Bird (she’s done a lot of the research), found that there wasn’t a significant difference between monolingual and bilingual children with Down syndrome when it came to any of the tests of English that they did. Again the children with Down syndrome, whether they were monolingual or bilingual, did have language delays but not because of being raised with two or more languages. Now, there was considerable variation in 2nd language abilities in the children with Down syndrome. This means that some children with DS may have more difficulty learning two languages but it doesn’t meant they can’t learn two. And once again, it’s important to think about what your child needs language-wise. If they need two languages, they need two languages. And there’s a lot of individual variation in language development between individual multilingual children and groups of matched multilingual children who don’t have Down syndrome. Kay Raining Bird concluded that children with Down syndrome can be successful in acquiring two languages. And that bilingual children with Down syndrome perform in their stronger language at least as well as monolingual children with Down syndrome when the children are compared with children at a similar level of development.

A 2008 Canadian study of vocabulary and grammar in children aged between 5 and 8 years old found that the bilingual children with Down syndrome did show language delays in both languages but bilingualism was not the cause of these delays. Children who have Down syndrome do struggle with language development affecting expressive language in particular. However, being bilingual does not make these language problems worse. All of the four children with Down syndrome in the study were developing functional second language skills. Just like any child, the variations in their vocabulary was related to the input they were receiving in each language. (English and French were the languages)

Next up is another Canadian study from 2014 also involving Kay Raining Bird. In this study, 14 children with Down syndrome (average age 12 years, 5 months) were involved. And the focus of the study was on word learning and again the researchers found that being bilingual did not have a detrimental effect on the language development of children with Down syndrome.

Next, from the UK, a case study of one girl aged 6 years 11 months when the study started and 9 and a ½ when the study ended. She was born in Belarus to multilingual parents who spoke Russian, English, and Belarusian. She moved to the UK when she was 6 months old. Russian was her home language with limited exposure to English until she started school at age 4 and became more exposed to English. Her parents read to her in Russian daily and extensively and started to teach her to read words in Russian when she was 30 months old. In this study they wanted to look at her speaking and word level reading. They showed that when it came to spoken language, the little girl was as proficient in Russian as she was in English with slightly stronger word reading ability in English. Similar to monolingual children with Down syndrome, this little girl did struggle with aspects of reading such as understanding what she was reading. In fact, when it came to understanding what she was reading, the little girl performed similarly to monolingual children with Down syndrome suggesting that this may be an area of difficulty for children with Down syndrome in general.  They concluded that learning to speak and read two languages in the presence of having a learning difficulty, does not necessarily lead to a detrimental effect on a child’s spoken language or word level reading.

Hot off the press is a review of 50 research studies which revealed that there’s little evidence to support view that being multilingual is harmful to the language or social development of children who live with developmental differences. The authors recommend that public policies should reinforce the fact that there is no clinical, linguistic, or cognitive evidence to support recommendations that multilingual families drop any of their languages.

Finally, a study that looked the potential cognitive effects on children with Down syndrome learning a second language. 41 children with Down syndrome aged 7-18 years of age took part. 28 were monolingual English speakers who also had Down syndrome. 13 children were bilingual and had Down syndrome. They were exposed to a language other than English for an average of more than 4 hours daily. The children were tested on things like navigating a virtual arena using a joystick to find a hidden object, sequences of numbers generated by tapping fingers, and working memory. The researchers wanted to find out what effect learning a second language might have on these cognitive abilities. What they found was that there was no significant difference between the two groups of children on any of the tests they did. This means that there were no cognitive costs to the children with Down syndrome who were learning a language other than English.  

So what does it all mean? Well, the available research indicates that children who have Down syndrome can and do learn two languages. Unfortunately though, this fact is not yet part of mainstream thinking. It’s important to remember that multilingualism is rarely a choice. It’s more a fact of life for your family. You need two or more languages to communicate at home, with family members, in your communities, at school, and so on. And your multilingual children with Down syndrome need to develop all of their languages. There are no scientific grounds for saying that it’s not possible and that families should stick to one language. That is wrong. And not supported by the best available evidence. It’s important to remember too that in some countries such as Canada where there are 2 official languages and Ireland where there are 3 (Irish, English, and Irish Sign Language), multilingualism is actually a legal right.

Of course, it’s important to remember that for children with Down syndrome, the level of language proficiency they attain in all of their languages will be affected by their level of cognitive functioning and developmental levels. Similar to any child, environmental factors such as the kind and amount of language input they receive and the opportunities to use their languages will also have an effect on the level of language skills they attain.

It’s important to give high quality language input and opportunities to use their languages. It’s important to support home languages especially as they’re vulnerable. They may have a lower social status and opportunities to hear and use them may be restricted.

As for speech and language therapy, recent research from Canada reports that the practice of language intervention in only one language (which is usually the language of the SLT/SLP) cannot be supported by the current research. Multilingual children with Down syndrome and speech and language challenges need intervention that takes all of their languages into consideration in order to help them achieve their potential and participate fully in society.


If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends and  be sure to sign up for my next post which will be about language intervention for multilingual children.


The research:

Kelly Burgoyne, Fiona Duff, Dea Nielsen, Anastasia Ulicheva, and Margaret Snowling. (2016) Bilingualism and biliteracy in Down syndrome: insights from a case study. Language Learning 66(4): 945-971.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Fred Genesee and Ludo Verhoeven (2016) Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: a narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders 63: 1-14.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Natacha Trudeau, and Ann Sutton (2016) Putting it all together: the road to lasting bilingualism for children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Communication Disorders 63:63-78.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Patricia Cleave, Natacha Trudeau, Elin Thordardottir, Ann Sutron, & Amy Thorpe  (2005) The language abilities of bilingual children with

Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 14: 187-199.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird (2016) Bilingualism and children with Down syndrome in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders.  pp 49-73. Edited by Janet Patterson and Barbara Rodriguez. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mirko Uljarević, Napoleon Katsos, Kristelle Hudry, and Jenny Gibson (2016). Practitioner Review: multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders- an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 57 (11): 1205-1217.

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

Patricia Cleave, Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Natacha Trudeau, and Ann Sutton (2014). Syntactic bootstrapping in children with Down syndrome: the impact of bilingualism. Journal of Communication Disorders 49: 42-54.

Feltmate, K & Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird (2008) Language learning in four bilingual children with Down syndrome: a detailed analysis of vocabulary and morphosyntax. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology 31(1) 6-20.

Stefka Marinova-Todd & Pat Mirenda (2016). Language and communication abilities of bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders.  pp 31-48. Edited by Janet Patterson and Barbara Rodriguez. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

J.O. Edgin, A. Kumar, Spanò, & Nadel, L. (2011). Neuropsychological effects of second language exposure in Down syndrome. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 55 (30): 351-356.



December 14, 2018
by Mary Pat
Comments Off on 6 Ways To Raise Multilingual Children

6 Ways To Raise Multilingual Children

So in your family, you speak two languages or more and you want the same for your children. What’s the best way to do it though? The truth is though that there isn’t one single best way. There isn’t one right way to do it. There’s no one definite way to guarantee your child will become an adult speaking fluently and reading and writing in all the languages. Language development just isn’t like that. By its very nature it’s variable. Why? Because we use different languages for different reasons and topics with different people and that affects language development. Other things that affect language development are the quality of exposure to each of the languages, the amount of quality exposure, the opportunity your child has to use the languages meaningfully, and the status of the languages in the place where you live. It’s a bit like gardening- you can only control how you prepare the ground, plant the seeds or bulbs, water them, weed and so on. You can’t fully control the quality of the seeds. You definitely can’t control the weather! And you can’t control things like the neighbour’s cat digging your seedlings while doing their poo- which is what I saw this morning on my way to work!

What can you do? You can focus on giving your child high quality input in the languages plus opportunities to use them. How do you do that? Have a look at these posts for specific language development tips:

8 Ways To Build Your Toddler’s Vocabulary

Two Small But Powerful Words That Affect Your Child’s Language Development

What Happens After Your Child Says Their First Words?


Consistent high quality input + opportunities to use the languages really help.


Let’s have a look at the options

#1 Have no plan. This is what my Serbian friend did with her little boy. They didn’t have a plan in advance but followed their instincts. She spoke Serbian with him when he was a baby because that’s what came most naturally to her when bonding with him. Her husband spoke English with him because that was his mother tongue. They lived in Germany so that was the language when they were out and about and in school. So initially they had two home languages and the community language. Then they came to Ireland so the community language switched to English. And they were now a minority language at home family. If she spoke Serbian to him and he responded in English, she didn’t pass any remarks. She just continued in Serbian. They spent summer holidays in Serbia. He’s now 19 and confident in Serbian and English. That’s what worked for them.


#2 Make a plan where you work out what you want and how you’re going to do it in advance. Only you can know what’s right for your family and your situation. Do you want to focus on listening and speaking and later reading and writing? How many languages? What ones? Why these? Once you’ve worked this out, then you have other options for how to go about developing your child’s languages. Still keeping in mind, that you only have control over yourself, what you do, and the meanings you attach to what your child is doing. Here are some more options:


# 3 Use the OPOL approach. OPOL stands for one person, one language and started out as a description for how some bilingual parents use their languages with their children. The research shows that this isn’t necessarily the best or most effective way to raise multilingual children. There are issues with it. For example it doesn’t support home language development enough. This is because community languages are so pervasive and have higher status that home languages need intensive support to have a chance. It also goes against a natural tendency in multilingual speakers to mix their languages and switch between them. Multilingual adults do this. Some people do it more than others. Some people do it less. But part of language learning for multilingual children is learning how to do it and when it’s okay to do it and when it’s not. There’s research to show that multilingual children work this out very early on- when they’re toddlers. They work out who understands which language and generally tend to be able to match the language to the listener. There’s also research that shows that in school for example they work out that it’s okay to switch and mix languages when chatting to friends but not when talking to the teacher.


This is something you can talk about with your partner and come to a decision. And it’s something only you will be able to know for yourselves. My attitude is, if it works for your family, that’s great. If it doesn’t feel right for your family, that’s fine too- your approach has to match your family circumstances and values. If you don’t use OPOL that does not mean your child will lose out when to comes to languages.


#4 Use the minority language at home. This is where both parents agree to use the minority language at home. Your child will then pick up the community language outside the home or in child care or preschool, playing with neighbours and so on. What if you’re worried about your level of ability in a minority language that’s not your strongest language? There’s mixed evidence about this. I read two papers recently where the advice was to speak your strongest language with your child because then your input is error free. However, my Serbian friend reports that her son never picked up any of her errors in English. Minority language at home does give your child a rich environment for developing that language. And is likely to be an effective way for them to develop language ability in the minority languages. They will pick up the community language easily as it is so pervasive. Another possibility is


#5 Time and Place where you choose a time and/or a place where you will speak each language. So you might decide to speak one language at dinner if you have family dinners. Ana Paula Mumy, a bilingual SLP has a lovely activity where you let your child pick the language – you put the flags for the country into a bag and they pick at random and decide for how long or on what topic. Doing it this way does require a lot of focus on your part but if that’s what works for you, then that’s great. You can only do this your own way.


#6 Mix it all up is where you use all of your languages with your child; whatever feels right to you at the time. No hard and fast rules here. One downside though is that your child might be more likely to use the community language as time goes on and lose ability in the home language(s). You can keep speaking the home language(s) so that their understanding continues to develop but home languages need more than occasional use in order to thrive.


So what works for you and your family? Be sure to leave a comment below. If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.


What I read so you don’t have to!

Rosenback, R. (2014). Bringing Up A Bilingual Child. UK: Filament Publishing.

Cunningham-Andersson, U. & Andersson, S. (2002). Growing Up With Two Languages. London: Routledge

Paradis J. & Genesee, F. (2011) Dual Language Development & Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism & Second Language Learning (Communication and Language Intervention). USA: Brookes.

Baker, C. (2014) Parents’ & Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. (4th ed.) Uk: Multilingual Matters

October 25, 2018
by Mary Pat

How To Make The Most Of Screen Time With Your Child

So my last post was all about screen time. How much is enough? How much is too much? You can read that post here. Realistically, screens are here to stay so let’s look at ways that you can use them to help your child’s language development and to connect more closely through conversations. I know I resisted Peppa Pig for a long time! Couldn’t stand her! Eventually though, I just bit the bullet and started watching together with my little girl. I soon knew all the characters and plot lines. We had great chats about our favourite characters, ones we didn’t like, things that made us laugh, how characters were feeling and so on. Basically, we used the iPad as if it was a book. That’s the key to getting the most out of screen time. Watching together and discussing what’s going on, predicting what you think might happen, talking about clues in the episode title, goodies and baddies- the list is pretty much endless once you get into it. How to get started though?

There’s a research based approach with a fancy name of Dialogic Reading. It was designed originally for reading together but you can apply the strategies to screen time too. Two words to remember: PEER and CROWD

The general sequence for screen time together this way is by using PEER:

Here’s what you do:

Sit close to together so you can look away from the screen and at each other when you’re talking- just like in the photo.


P is for pause and prompt. Stop the video at least once a minute. Prompt your child to say something about the programme. You’ll use CROWD for the prompts. You’re going to vary the prompts. Keep reading to find out what the prompts are. Aim for 1-2 prompts each time you pause the video. Keep your questions fairly simple to start with like what’s that? What’s she doing? And you can make them more complex when you know your child knows the story line inside out after watching a lot!

E is for evaluating what your child says (in your mind- not aloud!). This means thinking about what they said and about how you can add something extra.

E is for expanding what they say so you add more information or make a longer sentence than they did.

R is for repeating- getting your child to repeat their response so you can check that they’ve learned from the conversation.


Here are the prompts to use when you’ve paused the video: CROWD


C is for completion: This is where you leave a pause at the end of a sentence for your child to fill in. So let’s say Peppa Pig is coming on and you sing Peppa and wait for your child to fill in Pig. This technique is often used where there’s a rhyme at the end of the sentences.  Can you finish this one? Somewhere hidden amongst thorny brambles is……..?


R is for recall so questions about what happened in a programme that they’ve already watched. What happened to Peppa in this one? When you ask these kinds of questions, it helps your child tune into story structure so they get the idea of a plot and a sequence to the story. You can use these at the start of a programme or at the end of the programme. You’re asking questions that get your child to recall details. We also love Peter Rabbit in our house. Mr Todd is one of the baddies and there’s an episode set at Christmas time and I can never remember if Mr Todd gets a present or not. So it’s a natural prompt to ask my little girl What happened with Mr Todd in this one? (You can use these with your child starting at age 4-5)


O is for open-ended questions that let your child talk about story ideas and use new words that they encounter in the programme. Say things like Tell me what’s happening in this part.


W is for Wh- questions like Who, what, where, how, and why? You can ask questions like what do you think Peppa should do? Or why does Mr McGregor hate the rabbits? What do you think will happen next?  You can use these at the start of new programmes to help your child focus on details. Using a question like what’s that?  can allow you to teach your child new vocabulary. Don’t overdo the what’s that? question though! It can kill the conversation! You can say Oh I wonder what that thing is?

D is for distance. This is where you ask your child to relate what they see in the programme to experiences outside of the book. Remember when we went to the pet farm? What animals did we see there? Do you ever jump up and down in muddy puddles?


 Here’s a quick video showing you what it looks like.


Two other ideas to consider are:

Change to educational content like Sesame Street as much as you can & Create unplugged times and spaces like meal times or no devices in the bedroom.

If you like this post, please share it with your friends!

Let’s get talking! MP



Flynn, L. (2011). Developing Children’s Oral Language Skills Through Dialogic Book Reading. Teaching Exceptional Children. 44(2): 8-16.


Fraide A. Ganotice Jr., Kevin Downing, Teresa Mak, Barbara Chan & Wai Yip Lee (2017) Enhancing parent-child relationship through dialogic reading, Educational Studies, 43:1, 51-66.


Towson, J.A., Fettig, A., Fleury, V.P., and Abarca, D.L. (2017) Dialogic Reading in Early Childhood Settings: A Summary of the Evidence Base. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education Vol. 37(3) 132–146


Towson, J., Gallagher, P., and Bingham, G. (2016) Dialogic Reading: Language and Pre-literacy Outcomes for Young Children With Disabilities. Journal of Early Intervention 38(4) 230–246.

October 11, 2018
by Mary Pat

How much screen time should you allow your child?

One day in the supermarket I noticed a couple buying groceries. Their little boy (a toddler) was sitting in the trolley seat playing with a smart phone. This little guy was playing with this phone like a pro- both hands, thumbs flying, totally engrossed. This led me to think about my family and our devices. We have no TV.  But we still have managed to accumulate two smart phones, two tablets, a desktop, and a laptop! Now don’t get me wrong, I love technology and I think the internet is brilliant. But I did notice myself getting irritated if I was checking something on my phone and my little girl interrupted. Oh I didn’t like how that felt! It wasn’t like I was checking any critical really.


So what does the research say about children and screen time? It’s complicated! First of all there isn’t a lot of recent research on this although TV has been around for a long time. And it’s hard to come to definite conclusions both because of the lack of research and because three factors tend to interact to affect children’s learning: # 1 characteristics of the child (like temperament and ability to self-regulate), # 2 features of what they’re watching, and #3 the variation in the social and cultural contexts of children’s lives.


Let’s have a look at what’s out there. Brace yourself! One study of 350 children aged 6 months to 4 years in Philadelphia found that by age 4, 50% of the children had their own television and 75% had their own mobile device!! By age 4! Their own television! That shocked me! Almost all the children (96.6%) used mobile devices, and most started using them before they were a year old. At age 2, most of the children used a device daily and spent similar amounts of screen time on both television and mobile devices. Most 3- and 4-year-olds in the study used the devices without any adult help. One-third of the children were able to operate the TV and a tablet at the same time. In adults this kind of media multitasking has been associated with task inefficiency, lapses in attentiveness, and safety hazards. But there’s not enough research yet to understand how it impacts on things like attention span, distractibility, time management, and social interaction in children.


Do babies learn from watching baby videos and DVDs?

One study looked at how many new words 12- to 18-month-old children learned from viewing a popular DVD several times a week for 4 weeks at home. Children who watched the DVD didn’t learn any more words from their month-long exposure to it than did a group of children who were not exposed to it. The best learning actually happened when parents tried to teach their children the same target words during everyday activities. The researchers also found that parents who liked the DVD tended to over-estimate how much their children had learned from it. Your child’s vocabulary growth is directly related to the amount of time you spend talking with them.


Children who’re younger than 24 months of age need hands on exploration of their environment and interaction with parents and caregivers to help develop their language, social-emotional, physical, and cognitive skills. They can’t learn from digital media before age 2. And they have trouble transferring any knowledge from digital media to real life. The key influence on toddlers’ learning from commercial media (from about 15 months of age) is parents watching with them and re-teaching the content. Television viewing in infancy is disruptive to play, reducing the quality and quantity of child-parent interactions. It has been associated with language delay, at least in the short-term.


It’s not all doom and gloom though. One review of research found that children learn better from screen time when the content closely resembles their real life experiences. Think simple stories, familiar objects, and routines. Repeated exposure helps them learn the format and content of screen media and can even offset the negative effects associated with watching particular content. Watching programmes together is also key. But it’s not just watching them together- it’s more about the conversations you have while watching. There are specific things you need to do to get the most from the screen time. I’ll show you how in my next post so be sure and sign up here to get the next post delivered directly to your inbox.


Well-designed programmes such as Sesame Street can improve literacy, social, and cognitive outcomes for children between 3 and 5 years of age. But for most apps that you find under the “educational category” in app stores, there’s no evidence that they actually work. They’re generally not based on any established educational curricula and they use very little if any input from educators or specialists in child development.  Most of them are not designed to encourage two people using them together. Skills that are essential for school success (like creative and flexible thinking, emotional regulation), are best taught and learned through unstructured social play which is much cheaper than a device + internet subscription!


Digital books or ebooks that can be read on a screen often come with interactive features. Research suggests that these features may actually decrease your child’s understanding of the content and interfere with your conversations with them while reading because they’re too distracting. It depends. So, if the ebook has hotspots (where your child clicks on a picture to activate animation) or game zones built-in, these may lead to poor performance on tests of vocabulary and story comprehension in 3-6 year olds. Using those features involves task switching, and like multitasking in general, seems to cause cognitive overload. But, if the ebooks include animated pictures, sometimes enriched with music and sound, that match the simultaneously presented story text at the same time that they’re seeing/reading it, these can help integrate nonverbal information and language and promote storage of those in memory. Or something like a dictionary function with word definitions can also provide useful on-demand help.


Bottom line? Multiple developmental and health concerns continue to exist for young children using all forms of digital media to excess. There’s enough evidence to suggest that children between 2 and 5 years should watch no more than 1 hour a day. This gives them time to do other things that are important for their health, weight, and development.

Here’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics currently suggests:

  • If your child is under 18 months, then video chatting via Facetime or Skype with relatives or friends with a parent present is okay but not anything else.
  • If your child is between 18 & 24 months, you need to choose high quality stuff and don’t let them use TV or tablets or phones alone
  • How to find good stuff? Check out Common Sense Media , PBS kids, and Sesame Workshop
  • If your child is older than 24 months: 1 hour a day max of screen time but only watching high quality programming and shared use with you to encourage conversations. Talk about what you’re watching, critique it, and help them make links between it and the real world
  • No screens during meals and no screens for 1 hour before bedtime


You can also check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice on creating a family media use plan here.


Don’t worry- your child won’t miss out on anything by your waiting to introduce technology- everything is so intuitive and responsive now that it won’t take much time for them to get the hang of it.


How you talk about what you’re watching together is critical to helping your child’s language development. I’ll show you how to do it in my next post so sign up here to get the next post delivered directly to your email.


What programmes do you like to watch with your child? Why these? What programmes do you hate watching? And what apps do you like? Be sure and leave a comment below.

Let’s get talking!



What I read so you don’t have to

Bus, A., Takacs, Z, and Kegel, C. (2015) Affordances and limitations of electronic story books for young children’s emergent literacy. Developmental Review  35-79-97.


American Academy of Pediatrics  (2016) Media and young minds.  American Academy of Pediatrics 138(5).


DeLoache, JS, Chiong, C, Sherman, K et al (2010) Do babies learn from baby videos? Psychological Science 21(11):1570-1574.


Kabali, HK., Irigoyen, MM, Nunex-Davis R et al (2015) Exposure and use of mobile devices by young children Paediatrics 136:6:1044.1050.


Kostyrka-Allchorne, K., Cooper, N. & Simpson, A. (2017). The relationship between television exposure and children’s cognition and behaviour: A systematic review. Developmental review 44: 19-58.


Linebarger, L. and Vaala, S. (2010). Screen media and language development in infants and toddlers: an ecological perspective. Developmental Review 30: 176-202.

September 28, 2018
by Mary Pat

5 Amazing Facts About Your Bilingual Baby’s Brain

Prepare to be amazed! Babies are wired to acquire languages. Speech and language development takes time but babies start early and with a solid foundation before they are even born! Here are 5 Amazing Facts About Your Bilingual Baby’s Brain.

#1 Your baby starts to hear at around 26 weeks of your pregnancy. Now of course, this isn’t exactly like hearing on the outside! Sound has to pass through skin and muscle and amniotic fluid. But research shows that babies can tell the difference between sounds like /b/ and /z/ before they are even born. Distinguishing one language from another in a bilingual baby is robust at birth . They show language preferences at birth and shortly after for languages they heard while still on the inside! Your bilingual baby’s language journey starts before they’re born!

#2 New born babies show a preference for stories that were read to them before they were bornThey also show a preference for their mother’s voice at birth. Only a few days after birth, new born babies respond differently to language and to non-language sounds. Very young infants prefer to listen to speech over non-speech sounds.

#3 Babies are born with the ability to distinguish between and produce all of the sounds in all of the world’s languages! That’s around 600 consonants and 200 vowels! Starting at about 6 months of age, this ability gradually starts to narrow to the languages in their environment.

#4 Babies learn language rules earlier than you think! All languages have rules for what sounds can go together to make syllables and words. Like in English, we don’t have words that start with /nd/. But Swahili has words that begin with this combination of consonants. At 9 months of age, babies have been found to show a preference for what are called legal combinations of sounds in their languages.

#5 Babies don’t just learn languages by listening. Looking at your face is important too. There’s research to show that 6 and 8 month old bilingual babies could distinguish between French and English speakers just by looking at speakers on videos with the sound turned down.

If you want to read more about your bilingual baby’s brain, be sure and read this post that I wrote for Bilingual Kidspot.

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Let’s get talking! MP


Inspired by:

Byers-Heinlen, K., Burns, T., & Werker, J. (2010). Monolingual, bilingual, trilingual: infants’ language experience influences the development of a word learning heuristic. Developmental Science 12(5): 815-823.

Byers-Heinlen, K., Burns, T., & Werker, J. (2010). The roots to bilingualism in newborns. Psychological Science 2 (3): 343-348.

Byers-Heinlen, K., Morin-Lessard, E., & Lew-Williams, C. (2017). Bilingual infants control their languages as they listen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(34): 9032-9037.

Werker, J., & Byers-Heinlen, K., & Fennell, C.  (2009). Bilingual beginnings to learning words. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 364: 3649-3663.