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.
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?