How Can I Help a Bilingual Child Who Is Not Proficient in Either Language?

by Corey · 7 comments

Dear Madalena,

I am  kindergarten teacher and I have a student who’s parents only speak Spanish, but they believed she shouldn’t learn Spanish, so they just let her older sister speak to her in English. She went to preschool, where she picked up some more English.

The problem is, she is not proficient in either language.  Her syntax is incorrect in English and Spanish and her speech is very telegraphic.  She is in bilingual services at school, but she is not really bilingual. 

I am looking for suggestions on what I can do to help her gain proficiency in either language.  The bilingual teacher at our school is equally as concerned and is looking for ideas to help her with Spanish as well.  We appreciate any help – ideas, resources, other places we can seek help.

Thank you!

Dear Courtney,

You don’t say how old this child is, so let me start by saying that the issues that you mention (incorrect syntax, telegraphic speech) are quite typical of language development across the board, whether monolingual or multilingual. Some information about this is at The Linguist List. Language development has been shown to extend well beyond the schooling years, among children far older than kindergarteners.

One “problem” with multilingual children is that there is a tendency to attribute any perceived “problems” in their languages to multilingualism itself, not to developmental issues, simply because these children are labelled as “special” children. This article, on what typical multilinguals are, may help shed some light on this issue. Being multilingual is not special, it’s the normal condition of humankind, going by numbers: multilinguals outnumber monolinguals worldwide.

You say that this child “is not really bilingual”, and I wondered what you meant. If you mean that multilinguals should have “perfect”, or equivalent command of all their languages, this, again, does not reflect what multilingualism is: multilinguals use their languages differently, to different people, for different purposes. Multilingual children, in turn, must develop in all their languages in this way, which means that their languages will develop differently.

To help this girl with Spanish, as you ask, making two things clear to her parents might be in order. First, there is no reason why their girl “shouldn’t learn Spanish”. This is the language of her parents, and being able to communicate with one’s parents (and other relatives) in a language that comes naturally to them is a very good reason to learn that language. Her sister may go on using English with her. As said, multilinguals use different languages to different people. Second, speaking more than one language does not affect typical development in any of those languages. Their girl won’t become a better user of English by removing Spanish from her. Her English will develop through her use of the language in the environments where using English is natural.

Perhaps part of the “problem” with this child is that no one has made it clear to her, through actual use of her languages, which language she should use with whom, and why?

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


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:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia June 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

As Madalena said it must be made clear to her parents that they must speak Spanish with her from now on, and lots of it! A bilingual child uses their understanding of grammatical structures in one language to help them figure out another. They may not know they are doing it, but they do!
Frankly I’m surprised the parents have made this decision. I suspect older relatives have swayed them with now obsolete arguments about the ‘dangers of bilingualism’ or more likely they think they are doing her a favour and that by not teaching her Spanish she will learn better English. They need support and some positive brain washing, fast.


2 Marie June 17, 2011 at 11:23 am

When my daughter was 3 years old I had the same feeling as the nursery staff. My trilingual daughter was not able to express herself well in any of the languages. We had just moved country, she got a new baby brother and it was all too much.

The nursery staff has worked with lots of bilingual kids so they have enough comparison with other kids to realise that this little girl is not able to express herself well in either language.

I would say do encourage the parents to speak spanish with her. And encourage them to talk constantly to her.
Maybe the parents find it at this point also hard to talk to their daughter in Spanish as they have the feeling that she won’t understand it. Do encourage them to describe the things or what they are doing in case they find it hard to find something to talk about. For example. I am now putting on your trouser. Your red trouser. The trouser with the buttons etc, etc.
I know this is very hard when they are not so talkative.

Also explain to the parents how the Spanish can help the daughter with learning the concepts of things which the daughter could later transfer to an English concept.

Great that you care for this girl and I hope she will come out well.


3 Kathy June 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm


It would be a good idea to refer this student for a speech and language assessment, preferably with a speech therapist who knows about bilingualism, or better yet, speaks Spanish.

It could very well be that this child is developing normally. On the other hand, bilingualism does not immunize children against language disorders. On of the hallmarks of such a disorder is that it manifests in all the languages a child speaks.

Best of luck.


4 Beth O June 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm

My husband and I face a similar problem with his son who is 7 years old. He lives most of the time with his mother who insists on speaking to him almost entirely in very broken, incorrect English. His classes at school are all in English but almost all his classmates are just learning English as well, and not very proficient, and the teachers often sprinkle Spanish words into their class in order to teach the subject material.
My stepson is not able to stay all in English when talking with an English speaker, and not able to stay all in Spanish when talking with a Spanish speaker. He also uses a lot of mixed (Spanglish) words which are actually unintelligible to someone who is not bilingual themselves.
My husband is speaking to him in only Spanish (native speaker) and I am speaking to him in only English (native speaker). Those are the only “pure” inputs he is getting in any useful quantity. I see that he is improving very slowly but it’s sometimes very frustrating that basically, at age 7 he still cannot communicate at all even at a very basic level unless the other person is bilingual. But we just have to keep trying.
As the comments above noted, what the parents are encouraging at home is extremely important.
It’s very apparent to me why his older sister does not have this problem: because when she was little her dad was still living with their mom and both parents were speaking all Spanish to her. She went to school knowing no English whatsoever. I remember that at age 7 she was still quite a bit stronger in Spanis,h but was able to converse with someone all in English very well. Most importantly, in her mind she has always been quite clear about which language is which.
My son is 3. My husband speaks to him all in Spanish. I speak to him sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in English, but almost never mixed together. He himself was mixing both languages together all the time for over a year. But then he suddenly started keeping them straight most of the time and I can see that he’s getting better at it fast. A few months ago I started noticing that my little 3-year-old son sometimes suggests words to his older brother when he is stuck.
So my point is that what the parents are giving the child as inputs for a good, rich, full form of the language is very important.


5 Carla Zayas September 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

My 2 year old is learning Spanish and Portuguese at home. My husband speaks to her in Portuguese and I speak to her in Spanish, she is also watching TV in English. She mumbles for the most part and barely pronounce words correctly. She is able to communicate by saying a couple of words and making specific sounds that we recognize. Her pediatrician told be that it is too soon to take her to speech therapy. Her lack of vocabulary could be part of her learning multiple similar languages at the same time? Does anyone have any recommendations?



6 Carla Zayas September 27, 2012 at 9:01 am



7 Beth Ortuño September 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm

hi Carla
multilingualism does not cause speech delay. this is a misperception. unfortunately even pediatricians and teachers are often poorly informed.
seek out another opinion. speech therapists do NOT prefer the child be older before beginning their work. also note hearing issues in small children are often hard to know and testing is essential.
a multilingual child will speak the same number of words as any other it just gets divided when they are very little. so the child speaks for example 30 words in spanish and 20 in english but the total 50 is the same as any other child.


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