“Your child has a language delay”. “Your child’s language development is too slow”. “She/He should talk more”. Everybody has heard some variation on the above. But have you ever considered why do doctors/nurses/daycare nannies/family members think so? I came up with these reasons:
1) Because it is a very persistent myth- everybody has heard it so everybody repeats it, and it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not. And thus, it becomes a “truth”. Nobody questions it, even if the theory that multilingualism causes language delay has long been debunked.
2) Because they don’t understand all the language the child speaks- When many people think of speaking, they really think: “to speak in a language I can understand”. However, not everybody in a child’s multilingual surroundings will understand all the languages the child speaks. And many people will ignore the language they don’t know and focus on what they do know- thus making it seem that the child actually lacks vocabulary, or doesn’t speak the language “correctly” due to code-switching.
3) Because they lack the training to deal with multilingual children- doctors may be experts in medicine, and they may know a lot about how a child’s language should develop, but they lack the training in recognising how the language skills of a multilingual child should develop. In this case, we parents are the experts, not the doctors!
4) Because of the “silent phase”- multilingual children who attend daycare often seem silent and shy for a few weeks or months. This is because they still work on their primary languages before they can actually take on another language. And even though the parents know that their child speaks a lot (in their own languages), to the daycare nanny it may seem that the child doesn’t speak enough.
5) Because daycares, and doctors’s visits are artificial situations- in addition to the silent phase, many children behave differently at home and in daycare. Many parents see this when they bring their children to see a doctor for a well check and suddenly realize that their child is very shy or doesn’t respond to the doctors’ prompts. This could make it seem as if the child has a delay when in fact they feel uncomfortable around the doctor.
6) Because multilingualism is seen as the excuse to everything- somehow everybody expects multilingual children to have delays or problems, and everything is explained with “Oh yes, he/she’s multilingual”. It may seem that the doctor pays more attention to the child’s language development just because he’s multilingual, even though the problems are usually not connected to multilingualism itself.
7) Because multilingual children are often expat children and often deal with other problems- such as culture shock, lack of sense of belonging and other challenges. This may cause them to speak less, and be more likely diagnosed with a language disorder.
8) Because of stereotypes- some minority languages have a low status among the majority society. With these languages come certain stereotypes. This means that some multilingual children are more expected to have a language delay due to their social status or financial circumstances.
9) Because of the focus on language development- maybe because everybody expects multilingual children to have a language delay, more of them are being diagnosed- but it doesn’t mean that they actually have delay- or that the parents will follow the doctor’s order for therapy. On the other hand, while speech and language are important, so are other areas of children’s development. These are often overlooked due to the focus on language.
10) Because every child is different –and last but not least, every child develops at their own pace. However, doctors often measure everybody’s development using the same norms. If a child tends to develop differently, he/she may be more likely to be diagnosed with a problem. Many clever children actually are late talkers or seem delayed at some point in their lives- but it's not due to multilingualism!
Can you think of more reasons why multilingual children often get diagnosed as delayed? I’d be happy to read them!