All About Your Bilingual Child’s Pronunciation

In this week’s vlog, we’re talking all about your child’s pronunciation. How much do we expect to understand of your child’s speech (i.e. pronunciation) and how is speech sound development different in bilingual children? 

First, I like to remind parents not to compare their bilingual child’s pronunciation to a monolingual child? Why? Because the monolingual child has all day in which they’re hearing the same speech sounds, spoken in the same patterns, and that child has practice in that one sound system. But remember that a child who is bilingual will have their input (what they’re hearing) and output (what they’re speaking) divided during the day. And each language has its own set of sounds that exist in that language and its own rules for how those sounds come together. So, this means your child hears each language less than a monolingual child, but DON’T FRET! We still expect your child’s speech to develop along a similar but not identical timeline as other children who are monolingual. And your child will have many additional benefits which comes with hearing and speaking more than two languages! Bilingual children show more letter-to-sound awareness and this helps a lot when it comes time to reading (1).

So, let’s discuss what we do expect when it comes to your bilingual child’s pronunciation.  

Milestones for Speech Sounds and Intelligibility (Remember that intelligibility means how much we understand of what your child is saying and not how intelligent they are.)

3 months

Makes “cooing” sounds.

 6 months

Makes happy, playful  noises and laughs. She makes sounds like “puh”, “mi”, and “da”.

12 months

Babbles longer strings of sounds like “mamamama” and “dada gaga”

24 months

Is approximately 25-50% intelligible. By intelligible, this means what amount of speech you can understand. When your child is asking his grandma for something he’d like or telling her about the birds outside on the trees, how much does Grandma understand? Your child will still be making many speech sound errors at this age.

36 months

Is approximately 50-75% intelligible. Says many different speech sounds in words. For example, in English, those speech sounds would be m, h, w. p, b, t, d, k, g, and f. 

48 months

Is approximately 90-100% intelligible. Your child may still have trouble with certain sounds in the majority language and your home language.

By 5 years of Age

Close to 100% intelligible, meaning you should be able to understand almost all of what your child says and should be able to say almost all speech sounds, so long as they’ve had sufficient practice in that language. They may not be close to 100% intelligible in a language that they started learning, at say, four years of age, but they should be close to 100% intelligible in at least one of their languages.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Babbling! Babies babble worldwide and most babbling sounds are made with the lips: babababa, papapa, mamamama. And this is your baby’s way of practicing their sounds, discovering their little mouths, and will eventually turn into a word. Interestingly, some small studies have shown that babbling can sound differently depending on which language your child is babbling in (2)! And as your child gets older, they may use certain sounds from one language when saying words in the other language. All of this is very normal. 

When might my child need more help?

Many speech sound errors

If your child has many speech sound errors in both languages, get it checked out, especially after having adequate time spent hearing and speaking that language. As I discussed earlier, children will master the sounds in their language according to the amount of practice they have in that language. Some children have exceptional abilities to pronounce sounds in new languages, but most children will need to have a lot of practice to master sounds.  Having some difficulty with a few sounds here and there is expected. And, I wish I could give you an exact timeline from the moment that they had exposure to the language until the moment they’ll pronounce every single sound with perfect clarity, but it’s a tough calculation to make. We need to factor in the amount they’re hearing and speaking the language and at what age they first started learning that language.  And, we’ll need to calculate how one language influences the sounds acquired in the other language. The fancy name for this is cross-linguistic effect. But, don’t worry. This isn’t something you need to calculate right now. And it’s not the most critical part to know. What’s most important is that your child has a strong speech foundation. We’ll talk more about that below and in future videos. 

Difficulty in repeating a word the same way, especially if it’s a simple word. And this occurs in both languages for a child who is two or older. For example, you ask your toddler to pronounce the word, “pot” and he says, “tah” and then tries again saying, “pah” and then again with “tot”.  If words are coming out differently each time, especially when he’s repeating a word you’ve just modeled, that can indicate the need for a closer look.

Difficulty with pronunciation in both languages- not just one—especially if there’s difficulty with vowel sounds. Vowel sounds are the first sounds to develop. And children find vowels to be the most simple sounds in a new language to master.

So, just as I discussed earlier, what are some simple strategies we can do to create a strong speech foundation? What are some easy adjustments we can make right now? Get my handout HERE. I discuss strategies that you can use to optimize your child’s speech sound environment. In later weeks, we’ll go age by age, from birth to four and discuss what simple activities you can do at home to help your child. 

If you haven’t had time to check out my book yet, click here. It helps you navigate raising a bilingual child from birth to five. You’ll feel confident instead of confused and have a map to get to your bilingual destination. 

I would love for you to share with me what questions you have around bilingual language development! So, find me on Instagram @bilinguable or send me an email at info@bilinguable.com

  1. Being bilingual helps your child learn to read more efficiently!
  2. Bilingual babies babble differently?
  3. Studies cited in handout  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2802227/ 

http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Our-Views-on-the-News/Infants-in-a-Noisy-World.aspx?fbclid=IwAR3gQ-I7IP_9E3Rh88VEOxWTXaBkDlfMA7e6gWx8DDUbrYxYRWg8eaMmF1c