Bilingual Language Development

In a country like South Africa, and many other countries in a world that is increasingly multi-cultural, raising bilingual children is very common. Parents have many questions about this. Will it cause a language delay? Will their child speak later?. Today we’re going to look at what you can expect from your child’s bilingual language development.

There are two main types of bilingual language development. These are Simultaneous & Sequential.

Simultaneous language development means that the child is exposed to both languages at the same time.

Sequential language development is when a child first has a good grasp of a home language, and is then introduced to another language. This is usually after the age of 3.


A child who is developing two languages simultaneously usually starts to talk slightly later than a child who is learning one language, but still within the normal age range.

Language mixing (code switching) is common, but even from a very young age, children know which language to speak to which parent (for example, Afrikaans to the Afrikaans mom and English to the English father).

At around 18 months of age, a child learning one language should have a vocabulary of around 50 words. A child learning two languages should also, but this is a combined vocabulary. By 18 months, your bilingual child should also start putting words together.


When a child learns a second language after the first language has been grasped, the child may go through a silent period. For example, a child who has been raised speaking Tswana at home, who suddenly goes to an English school, might stop speaking at school for a while. This is normal, and not a cause for concern.

A child may be in this “silent phase” for anything from a few weeks to months. They will then start to experiment with memorised phrases that they may have learnt from heart “I’m fine” , and “Don’t know”. After this, they should start to experiment with words and short phrases that they have picked up. Eventually they will be confident enough to start forming their own sentences.

Whilst a silent period is normal, be sure to check in with your child and with your child’s teacher to see how he’s coping. Is he making friends? Is he able to use some gestures to express himself when he isn’t understood?

What you can do to help your bilingual child:


Talk to your child. Both parents. A lot. Use the language that you’re most comfortable in, and interact with your child, from birth. See Before Words to see how language development start long before first words. To read some more about how you as a parent can boost language development read 5 Strategies that Speech Therapists use.

Read books:

Reading books is beneficial to language development. Take turns to read books to your child. Try to include both languages.


Listening to and singing songs in both languages is a fun way for your child to be exposed to language! Try to listen to and sing songs in both languages.

Don’t be concerned if your child has one language that is more dominant than the other. This is normal,especially if he is exposed to one more than the other. This can happen if one parent is staying at home and the other is away at work.


First things first: Speak a language that you are most comfortable with. Many times schools request parents to speak the school’s language at home to help the child to learn the language. This can however lead to confusion, because the child’s familiar communication partner is now speaking a different language to what the child is comfortable with! Not only that but, if the parent is not a competent speaker of the language, the child is then exposed to a poor model of the language he is meant to learn.

If your child is going through a silent period and is struggling to express himself at school, talk to the teacher about your concerns.  You can also discuss some basic gestures that he can use to communicate with his teacher.

Make sure that your child is getting enough language input, in both languages!

Reading books

is a great way in which you can help your child who is a sequential language learner. This is because, if you’re reading a book out loud, the language that you’re using will be good quality and have the correct sentence structure and grammar, even if you’re not that comfortable with the language. This will also create a clear boundary and not confuse your child: e.g. Mommy is still Tswana, but the book is English.

Sing songs!

Songs are a great way to be exposed to language. It’s easier to memorise words in a song, and as time goes on these words will be connected to meaning as your child learns the language. Use simple songs like nursery rhymes, counting songs etc that your child can learn the meaning of quickly.

Bilingual language development doesn’t cause language delay, and in fact has many benefits for your child. However, if you are concerned about your child’s language development and feel that it is delayed, go to a Speech and Language Therapist near you. They should be able to tell you if your child has an underlying language delay.

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