Q&A: Will Learning Two Languages Help or Hurt With Speech Therapy

blockquote_bgMy son is 3 years, 7 months old. He was evaluated at 16 months for sensory development and speech and began occupational therapy for about 5 sessions. We then moved to Germany (from Michigan). He has since been evaluated by both his preschool and a private developmental specialist. He has a combination developmental delay mainly in speech, cognitive and motor skills. He averages about 2 years, 10 months in his abilities. We are looking to place him in a special education preschool here where he will receive speech therapy and physical therapy daily. But here is one of my many concerns. We are an English speaking, American family and we are only in Germany for 1 to 2 more years. His speech therapy will be in German, but we speak English at home to him. He speaks primarily English, but hears German from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm everyday. His teachers tell me he understands them when they speak to him and he speaks a little German in return. Is any therapy better then no therapy or will speech therapy in German cause additional problems? And what will happen when we return home? There are no options that we have found for speech therapy in English. My husband and I speak very poor German so we will not be able to help him in German. We could really use some guidance. I feel our problem is greater than just raising a bilingual child.

Typically a young child learning two languages simultaneously does not cause language delay or present a problem, and in fact, is beneficial to children in the long run. Since you mention that you moved to Germany when your son was 16 months of age, I am assuming he has been hearing German during school hours and English at home since that time. Children who learn 2 languages simultaneously often do speak later than same age peers who only learn one language, so do make sure that your son’s speech delay is not solely related to dual language learning. Since you mention he has delays in other areas of development as well, I am wondering if your son’s speech delay is both expressive (speaking) and receptive (understanding) in nature? Since he is going on age 4, he should be understanding both languages fairly equally and be able to follow directions in both languages, however, when speaking he may still mix both languages and have difficulty pronouncing words correctly or be difficult to understand. It is encouraging that the teachers say he is understanding them and that he speaks a little German back to them at school.

I am also happy to hear that you do have the option of enrolling him in a special education preschool and obtaining therapy for him, which is great and what I would recommend. I would definitely say that if you cannot find an English speaking speech therapist than do continue with his speech therapy in German. At home you can continue to speak English to him and benefit him by being a good English speech role model, pronouncing words and sentences clearly for him, expanding single words into sentences for him, etc. I would also suggest that perhaps you and your husband look into finding some German language tutoring for yourselves so that you can help your son with learning German as well. You don’t need to be fluent in a language to help a young child, since you will simply be naming simple pictures in book for him or objects around the house for him. It might help you at home if he is mixing languages and for example says the German word for “help” so that you know what he is trying to tell you. Ask your child’s teacher for a list of the German words or phrases they use commonly at school, see if they can help you out with some phonetic pronunciation and hang it on your refrigerator for easy access. If your son is having difficulty with articulation in English, you can check out this article for help on our website. This is also a great article on early bilingualism that may give you some tips. It will be beneficial for your son in the long run to know two languages even if it takes him longer to learn both.