Q&A: 16 Month Old Not Speaking in Bilingual Household

CME WebsitesChild Development, Toddlers 12 - 36 Months

blockquote_bgOur daughter is 16 months old, but does not speak much. She can make repetitive syllables, says papa really well, seldom says mama, and makes up words, but are not really understandable. Is this something we need to be worried about? We are Asians (Filipinos) and we talk to her in our dialect combined with English words. I also read to her almost every night (in English) for a little less than a month now but no big change yet. We also try to name objects to encourage familiarity. We are not really worried about this because we hear a lot that babies of bilingual parents usually have slower speech development because of confusion with the language. The pediatrician, however, said that she should have at least a few (1-2-syllable) words that are really understandable. Does this mean that our baby is too delayed with speech already? Do we need to call our local Early Intervention office for assistance? Is there anything else we could do to encourage speech development?

It sounds like you are doing a lot of nice things with your daughter to enhance her language learning by using books and familiar pictures for identification. At 16-18 months we would expect her to have a few single words other than just Mama and Dada, but it is good that you are hearing inflection in her voice and a variety of consonant-vowel combinations in her babbling.

It is true that children learning 2 languages simultaneously do often start speaking later, but it is to their advantage to learn 2 languages while they are young. Also, newer research has found that mixing languages does not mean a child is confused, nor does hearing 2 languages in the home cause confusion. We have seen some young children learn 3 languages at the same time, and it is most impressive what toddlers can do with all this language knowledge.

It would not hurt to contact your early intervention provider, especially if within the next 2 months (by 18 months) you do not find your daughter picking up and using at least 10 single words in either or both languages. By age 2 most children have at least 50 single words and at age 2 they should start putting words together in 2 word phrases such as “Mommy go” or “my cookie”, etc.

You can read about language milestones and suggested activities to enhance speech at this link.

If she is exhibiting any of the Red Flags listed in the above article link at age 18 months, then I would suggest contacting early intervention to have a speech evaluation completed.

In the meantime the best you can do is continue to be a good speech role model in both languages by using books, music, toys and just talking, talking, talking to her about anything and everything. Encourage choices at mealtimes and playtime, “do you want the cookie or the juice?”, “do you want the book or the ball” and praise her if she points and vocalizes, then re-phrase any sounds she makes into a sentence for her “Oh you wanted your apple juice!” or “yes, you picked the red ball”. Play babbling games with her using fun sounds and environmental sounds & animal sounds…sometimes these kind of sounds are more readily imitated than words like “cup, ball, dog”. For example “the phone goes riiiinnnggggggg”, the doorbell goes ding dooonngggg, the dog says woof woof, the car goes zooooommmmm” etc. The more animated and fun you make it, the more interested she will be.

Keep a word list on your frig and jot down any attempts at words, word approximations or actual words she says so that you can reinforce those words during the day. Remember we don’t look at articulation of words until after age 3, so if she always says “ba” for ball, then that is her word for ball and as long as you are repeating it correctly to her “yes, that is your ball”, then we do not worry about the clarity, that will come in time.