Our family speaks many languages… How do I help my child with their English skills?

Speech Pathology Australia defines those who can speak, sign and/or understand more than one language as being ‘multilingual’.

Multilingual children are exposed to more than one language across their different environments, such as kindergarten, home, shopping centres, parks and other homes. 

Multilingual children may not be proficient in all of these languages, but they are starting to take in and process the different words, sentences and grammar structures.

How much a child can process, understand and speak of a language depends on:

  • When they started hearing each language/how long they have been exposed to the language – has it been since they were a baby? Only recently?
  • Who they use the languages with – family? friends? teachers?
  • How often they hear the languages – every day? 2 days a week? how many hours a day? 
  • Where they use the languages – home? playground? kindergarten?
  • The child’s motivation to use each language – which language do they ‘want’ to be using?
    → This can depend on who they want to speak with (e.g. wanting to use English so they can play with the other children at kindergarten). 


How does language develop in multilingual children? 


In general, multilingual language development is different to children who are ‘monolingual’ (i.e. children who are only exposed to and speak one language).

It is expected that the overall ‘language learning rate’ (i.e. how many words they use at a time) of multilingual children is the same as monolingual children – for example, using 1 word at age 1, using 2-words (e.g. daddy go) at age 2, using 3-5 word sentences at age 3, etc. 

However, in multilingual children it is common to also see: 

  • A silent period – not talking much or at all while they process and ‘take in’ the new language
    → During this time, the child may rely on gestures or actions to communicate with others
  • Code switching – mixing the vocabulary, grammar and/or sentence patterns of the different languages
    → This can happen in the same sentence!
    → But don’t worry! Research shows that multilingual children’s grammar and sentence structures catch up with continued and consistent exposure to the different languages
  • Vocabulary ‘appears’ delayed in one language
    → The child’s total vocabulary is spread across all of the languages they are learning
  • **Difficulties with certain speech sounds in their non-dominant or second/third language
    → This occurs when a child has strengths in one language, and then starts learning a different language that has different speech sounds
    → For example, a child who speaks Khmer first can have trouble using the /h/ and soft /t/ sounds when they start learning the English language; and may drop the /h/ or swap the soft /t/ for a voiced /d/ sound


Multilingual children’s difficulties with sentence structure and grammar tend to continue the longest, and can be the last part of their language skills to adjust. 


While these things are all expected as part of multilingual language learning, it is still okay to get extra help or support from a Speech Pathologist to boost your child’s communication skills. This can help them to better express themselves and communicate with the people around them (while their speech and language skills are catching up). 


What can I do to help develop their English language skills? 

Research shows that there are many benefits to growing up with more than one language, such as:

  • Cognitive skills – attention, solving problems, vocabulary, planning, sound awareness (i.e. phonological skills), abstract thinking
  • Social skills – empathy, perspective taking, theory of mind (i.e. understanding what other people might be thinking and feeling)
  • Emotional skills – connection to culture and self identity, self esteem, family relationships
  • Academic skills – literacy (reading, writing, spelling), maths


It is always recommended that you keep speaking all of your languages so the child has time to learn the vocabulary and organisation of the different languages.

Just make sure that you do not mix the languages (i.e. don’t mix English words and phrases into the sentence from another language). Speak to your child using correct sentences from the language


Other ways you can help your child develop their language skills are: 

  1. Practising conversations – research shows that children best learn language when they are actively involved in listening to, answering to, and using the language they are learning,
    → This can be in play, daily routines (e.g. bathing, eating, dressing) and reading books!
    → Make statements about what you see and ask questions, give your child the opportunity to ‘speak’ and use actions (e.g. pointing, showing) to answer you.
  2. Shared book reading – reading a story book while making it a shared activity/conversation,
    → Mix up reading the words and talking about the pictures – you can even make up your own words!
    → Ask questions about the pictures, or ask your child to point to/show you things,
    → Do actions that match the words and pictures,
    → Add funny faces and character voices to make it interesting and fun!
    → Use shorter sentences (with correct grammar), and wait 3-5 seconds before continuing – this gives your child time to take in what you said.
  3. Be a narrator – describe and say what actions you are doing when you are playing with your child or helping them with daily routines (e.g. bathing, cooking, dressing),
    → This is a great way to teach your child the names of items and actions,
    → You can repeat the same types of words, so your child has more opportunities to hear and practise these words,
    → For example, “I am cutting the tomato. I am putting the tomato in the bowl. I am slicing the lemon. I am squeezing the lemon on the tomato. The lemon is juicy.”


You can do these things in all of the different languages your child speaks, so that their skills in every language continue to grow!

To get your child ready for Prep/school, you can speak with a Speech Pathologist or your kindergarten teacher about what types of words and language skills to focus on in English

How do I know if they are having difficulties with their language? 


Even though multilingual children develop speech and language differently, it is important to monitor them for any difficulties. The earlier we start therapy, the more time there is to develop the child’s communication before they start school.


Here are some signs that your child may need more help from a Speech Pathologist. 


They are frustrated when they communicate.

If your child is frustrated because they aren’t being understood or they can’t express their ideas, then they would likely benefit from extra support to progress their speech and language. We want communication to be easy and a positive experience for children!


Their language skills in all languages are not improving.

If your child is having difficulties developing their sentences and vocabulary in all of their languages, even though you spend a lot of time practising and using the languages with them, this can be a sign that there are difficulties going on. 


The word combinations and sentences they use are not as long as other children.

We know that multilingual children’s sentence length should match that of other monolingual children, even if their grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary are still developing. If you notice that their sentences are a lot shorter (e.g. only using 2 words, when others are using 5-6) than expected, this could be a sign that they need support developing their sentence structure. 


Their speech/pronunciation of words can’t be understood.

Clear and correct speech-sounds is an important skill for school, as we need correct sounds to learn how to read, write and spell. 


If you have more questions about multilingual language development, and/or how a Speech Pathologist can support you, call or email our Client Care team through [email protected] or (07) 3265 4495. 


Thida Hantun

Speech Pathologist, Clinical Lead