Help Me Grow | United Way of Utah County

Is it a Speech Delay, Language Delay or Bilingualism?

Have you ever heard the terms “language delay” and “speech delay” being thrown around almost interchangeably? Perhaps you’ve heard that children who learn two languages are more prone to speech delays? These terms and possibilities can be very overwhelming, especially when we want the best possible speech outcomes for our children. Hopefully, this article will help to provide some clarity and dispel some of the confusion and myths around what to expect from your little one’s speech development during their early years.

Language and Speech

Before we look at different examples of language and speech, let’s review how they are different. Language is: 1) appropriately understanding what someone is communicating to you and 2) being able to respond appropriately. This is also known as receptive language. How many times have we misinterpreted something that someone has said? This happens when we don’t understand what the other person really means because of how they said it (this has to do a lot with tone, or sometimes a lack of tone e.g. an email). For example, imagine you got a text from a friend saying, “I spent the afternoon at the police station.” Without context, this is difficult to understand. The same is true when we enter a conversation midway; our inability to understand what is being said inhibits us from being able to appropriately respond without asking for clarification. Speech, on the other hand, isn’t understanding what someone is communicating to you and responding appropriately, rather is it how we create sounds and words verbally. This creation of sounds and words is known as expressive language, and both expressive and receptive language are necessary when strengthening communication skills.

For example, language delays may exhibit themselves in young children when we understand what they are saying for the most part, but they may only say one or two word phrases (this child may have difficulties with their receptive language). On the contrary, children with speech delays often have plenty to say, but are simply hard to understand (this child may have difficulties with their expressive language).


So, why is it we’ve come to believe that children who learn two languages are more prone to speech delays? It may be because we’ve noticed these children are not saying as many words as other children their age. But, interestingly enough, there appears to be a language loophole with bilingual children. This is because their different word count milestones can be achieved by combining all words from the two different languages. For example, according to the Hawaii Early Learning Profile (HELP Charts) a 15 month toddler should say about ten to fifteen words, a two year old should use at least fifty words, and at about two and a half, toddlers should use at least two-hundred words to express themselves. As previously mentioned, all words that the bilingual child uses, whether it be the same word in two different languages, or two completely separate words with no association between them, count toward their total word count.

Another possible reason we may believe that our bilingual child has a speech delay is because of something called “code-switching.” This occurs when someone who speaks two languages changes language mid-sentence, like English and Spanish (have you ever heard of the term “Spanglish?”). If parents combine two languages in one sentence, their children will also combine their languages. This is not necessarily a bad thing, rather it’s how they’ve been taught or may feel most comfortable expressing themselves.

Now, the big question: does a child who is born in a bilingual home have a higher chance of having a language delay? The answer to this question is simply, no. It may seem like they do because the words they use in one particular language may be lower than average, but we have to remember that all the words they use (across the two languages) count toward their total word count which is usually on par with children who only speak one language. Additionally, we may think that a bilingual child has a delay because they may start speaking later than a child who only speaks one language (but still within an acceptable range). It’s hard to say what this “acceptable range” is simply because language starts from birth and every child is so different, but for the most part, children will usually say their first words sometime between eleven and fourteen months, regardless of whether or not they are bilingual.

Where to Turn If You’re Concerned

If you are concerned with your child’s communication skills, please feel free to call Help Me Grow Utah at 801-691-5322, and a Parent Support Specialist will be glad to help address your questions. Also, don’t be afraid to contact a Speech and Language Pathologist if you have questions. There are bilingual Speech and Language Pathologists that can help you answer child-specific questions about communication skills. If your child is anywhere between the ages of zero to three and you live in the state of Utah, you can call your local Early Intervention to get a free in-home speech evaluation, and if they qualify, they may be eligible to receive low cost speech therapy in the home. If your child is over the age of three, they qualify for a free speech evaluation through your local school district. These evaluations sometimes lead to free or low-cost speech services that can be provided by the district.

In conclusion, there is a lot of confusion surrounding communication during the early years, and it’s important to remember that receptive and expressive language are both important parts of having good overall communication, regardless of age. If you’re raising a bilingual child, do not fret; although they might start speaking later than monolingual children, their overall word count will not be affected simply by learning two languages.

For additional resources on speech, language and bilingualism, feel free to visit these links:

-Bilingualism in Young Children: Separating Fact from Fiction

Delayed Speech or Language Development

-4 Common Questions about Raising Bilingual Children

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