The Diga-Diga Syndrome. Or: Confessions of a Worrisome Trilingual Parent

by Alice · 17 comments

By Alice Lapuerta
Originally appeared in April 2006 on the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network.
Photo Credit: gazzaPax

As if parenthood doesn’t give us enough to worry about as it is, with bilingual children we worry just a tad bit more. One particular pet-worry is our children’s speech development.

Counting and analyzing our children’s words as they come out of their mouths becomes our favorite past-time. This brings some interesting problems. Your toddler development book says that by 18 months your child should be able to produce ten words. The thing is, your child just said “wattadingdi” and you have no idea what it means. Was that German? Spanish? Both? Do you even count it as a word, or not? And what about “huttagadafi,” “diga-diga-tu-tu,” “vidapu” or “hutautabitadu,” or interesting conglomerations like “pofavowurt?”

An optimistic parent gifted with a lot of fantasy will claim that her child just produced five perfectly acceptable words, and one complete sentence (in Germspanish: “Por favor, Wurst!” – sausage, please). Isn’t she a prodigy, speaking so early!

A more pessimistic parent (of which I am the type) will claim that the number of real word production is still at a sad zero. So no, she is not speaking yet, in any of our three languages. Is it time to panic, now?

Yet there are benefits to gibberish as well. The advantage of an expression like “diga-diga-tu-tu” is that outsiders think she just spoke the other language. “Oh, she must’ve said something in Spanish just now!” they say, with admiration.

Let them think what they will. I am not going to tell them that it was just gibberish. But secretly I worry a bit whether this isn’t a sign that she is confused. After all, my daughter’s friend is already talking fluently….

If there is one thing that we shouldn’t be doing, it is to compare our children’s speech development to that of monolingual children. We all know this.

Yet we do it anyway.

How many of us have been in a similar situation: you drop off Junior at kindergarten. As you pull off his boots and help him get out of his jacket, you overhear the (monolingual) kid next to you produce this wonderfully complex sentence in past conditional, in clearly enunciated English. You turn to the kid’s parent in admiration, and say: “He speaks so beautifully! How old is he?” He must surely be at least a year older than Junior.

“He is turning 3 in two months.”

“Oh.” So the other kid is younger than Junior, who already had his third birthday some weeks ago. And now (admit it!): just for one second you feel this unease, this ever so slight panicky feeling, this conviction that everyone else’s child will learn to speak properly – except yours. Your child will run around either completely mute, or he will produce “diga-diga-tu-tu” for the rest of his life. You know this for a fact.

So I went to the bilingual family bulletin boards to commiserate with other parents. I got the answer: this is normal, don’t worry. Your kid’s just fine. She’ll catch up on her own if you can be just patient. I felt better for about 5 minutes. Then in skipped in my little girl, asking: “Mama diga-diga-diga-diga vivio?” and slam, it returned, the worry.

No, she definitely, definitely has a serious speech defect, something entirely unfixable: she is afflicted with the diga-virus! Of course this is entirely my fault, because I insisted on this mad-brained scheme of bringing her up trilingually. What was I thinking?

So I did more research. I wrestled with academic studies, books, magazine articles. And ended up quite confused with all this information, a plethora of contradictory studies and advice.

Camp one said: Yes, speech delay is normal in multilingual kids. In fact, you almost have to expect a delay of some sort. Our children have to assimilate two or more language systems simultaneously! That’s a tremendous, extraordinary feat. So of course they need their time in which they process and separate the languages. What should you do in the meantime? Nothing. Be patient. Let them walk to the beat of their own drummer.

There’s too much sunny laissez-faire in this advice, I decided. It can’t be any good. So I turned to camp two.

Camp two said: No, speech delay does not necessarily have to be greater in multilingual kids. Recent study XYZ proves that this is not the case. There is no difference between multilingual and monolingual children when it comes to language acquisition. Speech delay points to the fact that there are other factors at fault. Are you sure it’s not a hearing impairment? ADHD? Autism? Or a mental defect?

Wonderful, now isn’t this just what I needed to hear. For the more I thought about it, the more I was certain that my poor child had all of those symptoms.

So I took her to a speech and language pathologist. This turned out to be more therapeutic for me than for my daughter. The therapist assured us that everything was alright and that we did not confuse, or irreparably damage my daughter’s speech with our trilingual endeavour. And that she would catch up soon. This sounded a lot like camp one sunshine talk.

“But what about her diga-diga fixation?” I asked suspiciously. I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

The therapist smiled. “She is using diga-diga as a filler, a substitute for prepositions. Her knowledge of grammar is already in place. That’s really what’s important. So, when she says “Mama diga-diga car,” she means ‘Mama is in the car.’ She expresses and awareness that something needs to go between Mama and car. That’s excellent.”

Now that was a different way of seeing things! I left impressed, uplifted, and immeasurably relieved.

They were of course right, the therapist as well as those optimists of camp one. Six months later, my daughter caught up on her own, and so fast that I couldn’t keep up with counting the words that suddenly flew out of her mouth. And not only words, but sentences! Beautifully formed, grammatically correct sentences – not only in German, but also in Spanish.

I think what eventually did the trick was her increased interaction with other German-speaking children. Kindergarten, playgroups, our move to a new neighborhood with a huge playground where she could interact daily with her friends. Now, she brings home rude phrases in Upper Austrian dialect: “Mami, geh’ weita do!” (hurry up, mom)

And her diga-fixation? She hardly ever says “diga” anymore. Now, I think of her “diga-diga” phase with a smile on my lips and yes, almost a sense of nostalgia. There was something really cute, almost poetic, about her lisped “Mama diga-diga-diga-tu-tu-tu,” after all.

(Read more articles from Alice online as well as in Multilingual Living Magazine.)

Have you worried about your multilingual child’s speech?  What have been your experiences taking your multilingual child to a speech therapist?  Have you experienced moments of panic during your multilingual parenting journey?

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa August 21, 2010 at 7:03 am

Count me in with the pessimistic parents on the vocabulary-counting front. Just because it sounds like a (nonsense) word doesn’t mean it is a (real) word – unless the child uses it with consistent meaning. Which mine didn’t for quite a while.

I like “diga diga” as a filler. Much more funny than the a/uh that my little one uses at the moment. Diga diga tu tu tu!

I remember going to a children’s activity when my daughter was between 1.5 and 2, not making two-word sentences yet. I heard a little girl probably a full three inches shorter than mine (but older…surely a lot older??) say, “Look, Mummy, I’ve got a sticker!” The only word in that complete, grammatically correct sentence including an auxiliary verb and indefinite article that my daughter could say was “Mummy”… *grin* Hard not to wonder if your child will be the exception that does, in fact, never learn to talk….

Thanks for this!


2 Q August 21, 2010 at 11:26 am

Haha, “diga diga tu tu” is adorable! 🙂 I have to say, when I first thought about how my son’s language skills would develop, I was scared with all the talk about bilingual kids taking longer than normal to get the languages down. And then all my worries went out the window when, at 18 months, he began saying a new word (or two or three!) a day – in English and Spanish alike. 😀 Now he’s 19 months old, and I can’t keep track of all the words in his vocabulary anymore. In fact, I think he even understands Spanish better than I do! I can imagine in a few years from now he and my husband will be having lengthy conversations en Español, and I won’t be able to keep up with them. 😛 I think it really boils down to the fact that they’ll all do it on their own time in their own way – much like every other aspect of growing up. Ah, but it’s so easy to forget that from one moment to the next. Parenting can be such a stressful trip!


3 Maria August 24, 2010 at 11:52 am

Ah, sweet memories 🙂
My brother still remembers fondly when Isabella would tell him: “Gory gory house?” He definitely thought it was german 😉


4 Kimberly de Berzunza August 27, 2010 at 10:53 pm

You were lucky to get the speech therapist you did– the cases I’ve heard of have been different, with the therapist convincing the parents to abandon the minority language with the child. 🙁


5 Alice August 28, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Kimberly, you are right, we were really lucky. Our ST is gold, and my daughter adored her! We did not find her easily, though. We also had our share of negative experience with STs and other professionals who were not very informed about multilingualism. It is important to be informed yourself as a parent, and then to just keep looking until you find the right person. They really are out there, one only needs to find them …


6 Barbara September 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I know all about parent paranoia and over-analyzing our children. But every time I over-analyzed the language skills of my bilingual kids I reminded myself of my own language aquisition: I grew up monolingual German, but did not speak until age 3! I would still say “Ei” for Eisenbahn for example. In spite of that, I went on to learn three more languages, consider myself on the language-gifted side, have a university degree in history and now live a happy bilingual life in the US. By the way, Einstein didn’t talk until he was three either…


7 Alice September 9, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Love it!!! Thank you for sharing!! 😀


8 Tanya March 23, 2011 at 8:57 am

Alice, thank you so much for your post. That’s exactly what I needed to read now.
My daughter has similar problem. She is a bilingual English-Russian 2-year old, and currently her speech is mostly jibberish with some “real” words in between (often out of context). Childcare workers don’t know this and think that “she must be speaking Russian”. I’ll let them think this way :).

I kind of expected delays with speech, and I wasn’t worried until when my daughter turned 2 and still had under 10 words vocabulary and specialists raised concerns over her speech.
I remember shortly after doing this assessment, I took my daughter to playground to meet friends where I’ve heard my friend’s 2 year old said to her mummy: “Mummy, I love you so much!” and that was the first time I got really jealous.
I remember crying all the way home in my car. I new my daughter would say that too if she could. But she can only say “mama” and give me some hugs and smiles. I remember getting really angry with myself: how did I dare to think of raising my daughter bilingually? But I new I had no choice really. My native language is a part of me – how can I not speak it to my child?
Now, 2 months later she made progress to around 25-30 words and started put together 2 words … I’t is very slow and I’m still waiting for the moment she “starts and never stops” speaking. Perhaps, instead of worrying I should really be taking notes of those cute little jargon words she’s using to substitute “real” words. It is hard to think “big picture” when you are so worried about present moment.


9 Alice March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Tanya, big hugs! I completely feel with you and am sorry that you felt so sad. I wish you could hear my daughter now (she just turned 9): she is a terrible chatterbox and won’t stop talking – in all 3 languages! She is a straight-A student and there is absolutely no indication of her diga-diga symptom now. And I used to be absolutely convinced that she’d never grow out of it. 2 years is still so young … your daughter will get there, just let her walk to her own drummer! 😀 Until then, like you said, keep track of her speech development by writing down her “unique” words. One day, you will read over them with a smile (and a slight feeling of nostalgy). 😀


10 Hette November 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Oh my god, this column was just what I needed. My sons are raised trilingual in Russian, Dutch and German. We live in Germany. I am a Dutch native speaker. Just recently my eldest son started Kindergarten and what you describe is what I experienced. Although my son can produce enough words in both Dutch and Russian, he doesn’t seem to get a grip on German. Either he refuses or says only short things, like ‘need to pee’, ‘want to drink wasser’ but he still cannot produce any fluent sentences in German. And it really bothers me, because all those monolingual kids are speaking like crazy. I wonder if he’ll ever understand and start talking! Thanks for your column, it’s nice to find recognition and understanding.


11 Anna Wolleben May 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm

You made my day! This kind of worries steal my sleep lately! Now I feel better and I had a good laugh about diga diga!


12 daniel May 15, 2013 at 1:46 pm

In our case my boy didn’t have any speech delay. In fact he started speaking earlier than his classmates in spanish plus english almost at the same level. Each child is unique and they just need you to walk with them through all these phases. Now he is 3 he can be a hell of a chatterbox sometimes and in 2 languages!!! if you want some references i kept cronological track of my kids developement in my blog. Big hug from spain


13 daniel May 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm


14 Stefanie July 22, 2013 at 10:47 am

Thanks for this great post! Our son is raised with three languages: German (my native language), English (my husband’s native language and our family language) and Spanish (he attends a Spanish immersion daycare). At 14 month, his favorite expressions are dap, dak, dat with occasional interludes of dada, pa, papa, ma, mama, mappa. At his 12 month check-up the pediatrician asked if he could produce three distinct words and whereas my husband boasted, ‘Oh, loads more than that’, it sadly shook my head and said ‘no, not really’. I will join the sunny camp and abandon fears that he will speak German like Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator.


15 Amy September 21, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Laugh out loud! Finally my type of website about trilingualism.
Why do bilingual parents write on this page when trilingualism is another field of study? I’m tired of hearing “my bilingual kid finally started speaking at 18 months”…..good for you, but most of us trilingual parents are looking at around double that age to get a word out of our kids. Our son has German, English and Italian to learn, 21 months and not a word. I don’t expect anything until at least about another 6 months. I’m not going to sit down and actively force him to do anything proactive like a lot of the web harps on about, especially if he can’t even speak yet. It’s just more and more pressure so I’ll stick to camp one and hope it all comes pouring out one day…..


16 Christine December 21, 2014 at 9:18 am

This is such a great post and so encouraging. I have a trilingual 3 year old and while I understand her perfectly fine with her mix of English, Chinese, Korean and her personal jibberish, her father often complains he doesn’t understand her (he;s Korean, and I’m Taiwanese but only speak Mandarin) nor my in-laws. Apparently I was late too from what my mother told me (surrounded by various dialects of chinese + english). so while it would be nice to get my daughter evaluated, the whole “finding a ST who does those three languages” keeps leading me to dead ends.


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