Bilingual and Multilingual

Is your child speaking multiple languages but having trouble communicating?

Is your child:

  • Speaking more than one language and having communication challenges in English?
  • Late in talking but fluent in multiple languages?
  • Speaking one or more languages at home but hearing English at daycare or school?
  • Appearing to understand your native language at home and to understand the teacher at school but choosing to only speak English?
  • Answering questions in different languages (i.e. you ask a question in your native tongue, and your child responds in English)?
  • Mixing up words from two or more languages in one sentence?


Children who are multilingual may appear to have trouble with speaking or communicating. Sometimes, multilingual children are mistakenly thought to have a delay or disorder. Certainly, it is possible to be multilingual and also have a disorder or disability, but it is very important for clinicians and school professionals to know the difference.

Bilingual and multilingual children are also not referred to as ‘English Language Learners’ (ELL), given that they are fluent in English. This distinction is critically important. Bilingual or Multilingual children hear two or more languages in their environment on a daily basis. This language exposure can alter the course of linguistic development to a degree.

Sometimes, kids who hear multiple languages from birth may speak later than their peers who are monolingual. They might appear to be slower to learn because they are working on vocabulary and gestures in more than one language. Vocabulary might be stronger in one language and might appear later in the others.

You might notice your child knows a word for something in one language but might not know it in another language. For example, your son might say “dust pan” in your native language spoken at home even though he knows the English word for the same object.

She may not be aware that others don’t know a word she is using, and may assume everyone knows the same languages she knows. He might sing in both languages without realizing he is mixing them together. When reading with your child, she might point to pictures in the book and label them with words in the different languages she speaks.


Typical multi-lingual development: Research has suggested that bilingual or multilingual children benefit from their multilingualism in terms of cognitive development. Although monolingual children tend to have bigger vocabulary than bilingual children at very young ages, the bilingual child will eventually catch up after some time spent in school.

Further promising research has indicated that, “bilingual children tend to perform better than monolingual children on measures of cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking, and metalinguistic awareness.” [4]

Code-switching: Switching between languages is normal for multi-lingual children and they may mix the words when speaking or writing at times. The term ‘code-switching’ is used to refer to the changing between languages or dialects that multilingual children can generally do with ease [3]. Code-switching serves several purposes [4]:

  1. The bilingual or multilingual child will sometimes use the primary language when he cannot think of the word or idea he wants to say in the second language.
  2. Another purpose is to demonstrate a sense of solidarity and membership with the group speaking that language.
  3. Finally, code-switching may occur to show a certain demeanor or attitude. A parent may ask the child to do something in English, and if the child does not do it, she may repeat the command in her native language [4].

Challenges for multi-lingual students: Usually, bilingual or multilingual kids think in all languages they speak, and they “translate” in their heads before explaining what they want to say. Sometimes they may suffer from the “it’s on the tip of my tongue” phenomenon and may take a little longer to find a word, but this experience is normal.

A bilingual or multilingual child might nod his head and show he understands you when you ask him a question in one language but might answer verbally in another language. This behavior is normal. In some cases, children are a bit behind in one language versus another.

For example, a child may speak both English and Spanish fluently but may struggle to read or write in Spanish. Sometimes, a child who falls a bit behind in the vocabulary or verbal concepts of a second language will have trouble communicating.

If no language delay or disorder is present, then it is okay for multilingual children to take their time to figure out how to explain themselves, either socially or academically. They also may take a little longer to demonstrate strong writing skills in multiple languages.

It is important to understand that children who speak multiple languages often prefer one over the other. The child’s first language or primary language is sometimes called the ‘mother tongue.’ Most children prefer to speak this language, which is completely normal.

This tendency can sometimes introduce problems when the child refuses to speak another language at school or at home. However, research shows that our brains are literally wired to speak our native language. During early development, a child’s brain is pruned such that it can recognize the sounds of the languages first spoken to them. This concept is best described here,

the neocortex has an almost endless capacity to learn and rewire itself. For example, an infant’s brain is born capable of speaking over 3,000 human languages but it is not born to be proficient in any of them. When the baby begins to hear his new home language, his brain begins to catalogue the sound of that particular language. Over a short period of time, the baby’s brain begins to hardwire itself so that it selectively strengthens the language networks that reproduce specific sounds and grammatical patterns he hears his parents using. At the same time, his brain begins to prune the nerve connections for sounds and grammatical patterns that aren’t used in his home language.” p.41 [2]

Issues in multi-lingual families: As discussed above, children may have a preference for their primary language, rather than a second or third language. This preference may be a problem in multi-lingual families because the parent from another culture may feel the child is refusing to speak his or her language.

This issue may occur in a home where the mother is from China and the child is in the United States, speaking English at school. The child may prefer only to speak English as this is the language spoken by teachers and friends.

Most language experts recommend that the mother continue to speak her native language to the child so that he or she continues to learn the second language. This second language exposure will in no way impair his or her growth in English or general language development.

Language disorders in multi-lingual children: Expressive or Receptive Language disorder in bilingual or multilingual children may seem difficult to detect. However, the symptoms of these disorders are the same as in a monolingual child.

Children with expressive language disorders may:

  • not express themselves well or may demonstrate a weak vocabulary
  • get upset or hit others because they can’t verbally express their needs to caregivers
  • have extreme difficulties with reading, writing, or general academic skills

Children with receptive language disorders may:

  • appear inattentive when asked to do something or might clearly not understand
  • have trouble following directions from a young age
  • do better with visual cues on a task because it is easier to “see” how to do something rather than try to understand the words
  • struggle in the classroom because they do not understand the lecture or directions

If a delay or disorder is present, it will appear in all languages the child speaks. You might realize that one of your children has issues with speaking and understanding you, but their siblings do not.

You may notice general problems in your child’s ability to express himself, to comprehend spoken language and to following directions. This language problem is not due to multilingualism but is rather due to a true disorder that will affect all the languages involved.


Allow your child to be exposed to all of the languages he knows and to continue to understand them and grow vocabulary. Talk to your child’s teacher to get your child involved in groups or activities in school or after school with other multilingual kids. Give your child time to express himself in each language. You may see that your child prefers English for all academic skills and your native language(s) for home only.

Talk to a speech language pathologist if language concerns arise in all of the languages your child speaks. You may need to talk to the learning specialist about getting ideas to help with writing tasks or math skills or reading appropriate level books if a language delay or disorder is present. Talk to your school psychologist if you suspect any social-emotional issues due to multicultural factors.

Many districts have schools that provide instruction in more than one language. You could consider a bilingual learning environment for your child if you are promoting speaking two or more languages at home. Having a school program that teaches reading and writing in both languages your child speaks may help to round out his or her education.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Academic problems (Learning): some children who speak multiple languages may struggle with the academic vocabulary in one or more languages
  • Emotions (Feeling): children who are integrating into a new culture or who are often switching between the social demands of one culture to another, may suffer from anxiety or depression
  • Social anxiety: children who are integrating into a new culture may be very nervous in social settings
  • Pragmatic language: children who are joining a new culture may have challenges learning social expectations
  • Expressive language: children who are speak multiple languages may have trouble with expressing their thoughts and ideas
  • Articulation: children with articulation problems may demonstrate difficulties in multiple languages. He or she might need therapy in both or all languages to learn strategies to improve intelligibility. If your child uses a technological device to communicate, it may need to be programmed in more than one language


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Articulation disorder: children with speech articulation disorders may be hard to understand due to sound errors in one or more languages
  • Expressive language disorder: children who are multi-lingual may also have trouble expressing themselves in all the languages they speak
  • Receptive language disorder: children who are multi-lingual may have difficulties with comprehension in all the languages they speak
  • Down Syndrome: children with genetic syndromes may have unique challenges speaking in multiple languages
  • Neurological conditions such as stroke, brain injury, tumors, cerebral palsy will impact language development in multiple languages
  • Hearing loss: children with hearing loss can have problems in all languages


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Clear Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist or speech-language pathologist
  • Speech Language Pathologist (SLP): to assess issues with receptive or expressive language
  • Psychologist: to help with any significant concerns regarding acculturation, socialization, or self-esteem
  • School Bilingual Consult Team: to help the school to provide supports for your child. Most districts have a trained team of professionals who give specific strategies and methods to help bilingual students thrive in monolingual environments

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • CELF-5: language assessment administered in English and other language such as Spanish or use a translator in other language
  • Social history and intake interview: background assessment with caregivers and parents in languages concerned. This interview may occur at the school or in a clinical setting to identify your child’s unique needs
  • Nonverbal cognitive assessments such as the following: Leiter, WISC (nonverbal subtests only), and UNIT. These tests can be very helpful if the clinicians considering your child’s overall skills and abilities do not have access to a test in your native language or a translator available. These tests will not allow for an assessment of your child’s language skills, but they will allow for a less culturally-biased assessment of your child’s cognitive ability


[1] Jones, Janine (Ed.) National Association of School Psychology. The Psychology of Multiculturalism in the Schools.

[2] Hammond, Zaretta L. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students.


[3] Coffey, Heather (Retrieved 2017). Code-switching.

[4] Academic Review (2015). Psychology: Developmental and community psychology (Volume 4). Bilingualism & Code Switching. P.54

See also: Baker, C. (2007). A parent’s and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. Multilingual Matters Ltd.

[5] Santa Ana, Otto (Ed.) (2004). Tongue-tied: The lives of multilingual children in public education.


 Diversity book for kids:

[6] Derolf, Shane (1997). The Crayon Box that Talked.

Image Credit:
Description: Elementary school student writing answer on the board with teacher standing next to her
Stock Photo ID: #48575405 (Big stock)
By: michaeljung
Previously Licensed on: December 5, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

Back to: Home → Communicating