Multilingualism & Disorders: How Can We Most Accurately Assess Word Count in Multilingual Children?

by expert · 2 comments

Multilingualism is neither odd nor worrying: what is odd, and very worrying, are the views that persist about it.

The topics in this Multilingualism & Disorders series aim at clarifying the misconceptions that associate multilingualism with disorders.

Each topic offers a brief introduction to common questions, and includes one token reference, which either marks watershed findings or otherwise addresses points which are perhaps less known within research on multilingualism.

This condensed format is deliberate, meant to invite discussion, thoughts, and more queries. Only with your help, as engaged readers, can we make this series the useful tool that we hope it will become.

— Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

How does one most accurately assess word count in multilingual children?

Multilinguals have different languages because they need them for different purposes. For example, they can use one language with mum and another one with dad, or they can use several languages at home and a different set of languages in the broader community.

The languages of a multilingual child will accordingly develop in different ways and at different paces, which means that the languages of a multilingual are not, and cannot be, equivalent.

Number of words is taken as a reliable indicator of language development, in the sense that a typically developing child will both understand and/or produce a specific number of words at certain developmental stages, and regularly learn more words, across time.

The fair way to assess a multilingual child’s vocabulary is the same as to assess a monolingual child’s: we count all the words that children understand and/or produce in all their languages, whether the child has one language or more than one.

Specific reference for the above topic:

General references relevant to core issues in the Multilingualism & Disorders series.

General public:

  • Cruz-Ferreira, M. (2010). Multilinguals are …? Battlebridge Publications. Book URL:
  • Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual. Life and reality. Harvard University Press. Book URL:


  • Cruz-Ferreira, M. (Ed.). (2010). Multilingual norms. Peter Lang. 
    Book URL:
  • Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago, M. (2004). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Brookes Publishing. 
    Book URL:
  • Grosjean, F. (2008). Studying bilinguals. Oxford University Press. 
    Book URL:
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at:

Disclaimer: This post and the comments provided below have been provided for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional financial, medical, legal, or other advice. This post has been published with the full consent of the author. The author has agreed to Madalena Cruz-Ferreira answering the Ask Madalena question publicly as well as readers leaving comments in the comment section below. Multilingual Living makes no representations or warranties and expressly disclaims any and all liability concerning any treatment or action by any person following the information offered or provided within or through this and any other information on this website. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional or medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. Please read our Terms of Use for more detail or contact us with any questions.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dione Fagundes-Peters September 28, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Hi, It was interesting this article because my son was tested as a monolingual and was one year behind but his reality is that he hears German from the father, Portuguese from me, English at school and Dutch outside home. I was a bit worried after the assessment but maybe your opinion that the vocabulary in all languages must be considered makes much more sense….what worries me though is that his articulation is not good.


2 Madalena Cruz-Ferreira September 28, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Would you like to give us a few details, Dionne? For example, how old is your son, what makes you say that his articulation is not good, and whether this is noticeable in the same way and in all of his languages.
I ask these questions because children typically show articulations that in some way or another do not match adult targets, whether the children are monolingual or multilingual. What you observe may be a developmental issue, and thus not one to worry about.
Another question is whether you have reason to suspect hearing problems in your son. Hearing difficulties are more common among young children than most of us perhaps suspect, and they certainly reflect on child articulations.
You may also want to have a look at a piece I wrote for the Ask-a-Linguist FAQ, particularly the section ‘What strategies to children use in learning language?’, where I deal with pronunciation issues, among others. Here:
Do come back, to this forum or to me?
Um abraço


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