The Facts on Bilingualism

 The Facts on Bilingualism

Mélanie McCool, Parent Outreach Educator, First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program of Ottawa

Parents often wonder if learning a new language will delay their child's speech and language development.  The short answer is a resounding NO.

From birth, a child has the ability to learn any and as many languages as they are consistently exposed to.  Early on, babies are watching, listening and learning from those around them. They watch your facial expressions and listen to the tone of your voice.  This helps them to feel safe and secure and to understand the world around them. Watching you also helps them to communicate by imitating what they are seeing and hearing. You are their best teacher!

Families are encouraged to speak with their child in their first language or mother tongue.  When we speak in our first language, we use lots of vocabulary, emotional words and correct grammar.  It gives your child the best start in his speech and language development and a strong sense of cultural and family identity. Preschool children who develop strong language skills in their first language can learn a second language more easily and do better at school with reading and writing.

A child's brain grows most rapidly before the age of 5 years.  For this reason, the best time to introduce a new language is before their 5th birthday.  The earlier a child is exposed to learning a new language, the faster they will learn it.  Children need to hear the new language spoken well, often and given many chances to practice.  The new language must be heard and practiced a minimum of 30% of the child's day so they can speak it well.  If the child hears the language less often, it will take longer to learn.

When introducing a new language we encourage the following approaches:

"One parent-one language":  One parent speaks one language to the child; the other parent speaks the other language to the child.

"One place-one language":  One language is spoken at home; the other is spoken during the day at daycare or at school.

"One activity-one language":  One language is spoken in one routine (during bath time), the other in another routine (during dinner). One language is used at home but the other is spoken during outdoor play or at a community activity (story time at the library).

Expect that babies, toddlers and preschoolers who are learning more than one language will meet the same communication milestones for their age (in their first language) as children who are learning only one language. It is normal for children to not speak their new language for a period of 6 to 7 months.  Until they are able to build enough vocabulary and confidence in the new language, they should continue to speak and build their first language.  It is also common for children to mix both languages in the same sentence until they have enough vocabulary in their new language to express themselves.  If this is the case, repeat what the child has said, in one language, to give them the vocabulary they are missing.

Are you concerned about your child's speech and language development?

No matter how many languages you or your children speak, you can always check your child's speech and language milestones in their first language.  If your child is not meeting these milestones, get help early.  Approximately 1 in every 10 children will need speech therapy to help develop their speech and language.  The earlier we can support your child, the faster they can build the necessary skills to communicate with those around them and ensure that they are ready to learn when they start school.

Check if your child is meeting speech and language milestones with the free online First Words Communication Checkup tool.  It is presently available in French and English.  Soon, it will also be available in simplified Chinese and Arabic.

The First Words Speech and Language Program of Ottawa has many Resources  on our website ( to help you build your child's language skills.  Take at our webinars available in the Learning Tools tab. 


Visit the First Words website at

Concerned about your child' communication development? Complete our online screening tool

First Words Communication Checkup or call the Ottawa Public Health Information at (613) 580-6744.

Remember:  early intervention is the best approach!

Do you have more questions?

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