Take steps to stop children from getting tongue tied

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 May, 2005, 12:00am

One of the most significant milestones in any child's life is its first word. It's a cause for celebration, something to be noted in the baby book or recorded on video camera.

But for many mothers, it's also a time of concern. Is the child keeping up with his peers? Should he be broadening his vocabulary more quickly?

According to speech and language therapist Melinda Sturgess, there's tremendous variety in normal language acquisition. Generally, the rule of thumb for a monolingual child is that first words appear by the age of one. About two, children are putting together two words. By 21/2, most are forming short sentences. However, it's perfectly normal to have one 18-month child who can speak in full sentences, and another who's just saying their first words.

For bilingual children, the situation can be different. 'There's evidence to suggest that children dealing with two or more languages may have slower language development,' Sturgess says. 'But, generally, it's their expressive skills that are slower to develop, not their comprehension of the language. Often, when you put their spoken languages together, the combined vocabulary is as good, if not better, than that of a monolingual child.'

Many parents bringing up children in a multilingual home are concerned about the impact of introducing more than one language. 'Children don't consciously think about which is the mother tongue,' Sturgess says. 'Even children as young as 18 months are aware of which language they need to use with each parent.'

Although most children don't experience difficulties coping with more than one language, she suggests that those who have difficulties should stick with the family's first language initially.

'Concentrate on firmly establishing the first language, so the basic concepts are well formed and structured, then gradually introduce the second language,' she says. 'When children have to sort out two different language systems it takes longer in the early stages, but there's no evidence to show that this continues. And once they're past the early onset, they'll take off equally in both.'

Recommended reading: A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism, by Colin Baker (Multilingual Matters)