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Bilingualism 101: Language Delay in Bilingualism


Child bilingualism constitutes a significant global phenomenon, which implies that many societies worldwide are multilingual. Thus, children encounter many languages which play a crucial role in shaping their thoughts and minds. If on one hand children may hear two (or more) languages from birth, they could also be reared bilingually despite not living in a bilingual family. This series of articles is therefore focused on bilinguals’ development and the mechanisms involved in the mastery of a plurality of linguistic codes.

The Bilingualism 101 series will be divided into the following chapters of content:

6. Bilingualism 101: Language Delay in Bilingualism.

Language Delay in Bilingualism

Developmental language delay is generally characterized by a slow acquisition of communication skills during preschool years, in absence of significantly related cognitive impairments or other developmental disorders. In most cases, such delay is transient; consequently, subjects manage to catch up with the typically developing curve as far as oral language is concerned. Nonetheless, some persisting deficits may affect these subjects in their academic attainments. Jack S. Damico is a clinical linguist and a speech-language pathologist, whose work is primarily focused on learning and language functioning. According to Damico et al. (2021), language delay primarily influences the acquisition of vocabulary and speech sounds (during the second year of life on average). Later, when vocabulary improves, deficits in syntax and morphology arise and become prominent. On the other hand, children with developmental language disorder (DLD) may show a deficit in pragmatics as well (especially in play skills with peers). At present, relatively little amount of research has focused on the language skills of bilingual children with communication disorders. Even so, existing data show that the prevalence of language disorders in bilingual children is no higher than the one observed in their monolingual counterparts, according to Gutiérrez-Clellen et al., (2004). Gutiérrez-Clellen is a member of the school of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at the University of San Diego. So, bilinguals and monolinguals with language disorders show similar attainments in language skills, and it seems that bilinguals who grow up in a linguistic environment that does not substantially support both languages are at risk of a significant decrease in their language skills.

Figure 1. The slow acquisition of communication skills in children with developmental language delay or disorder concerns both input and output language.

Bilingualism and multilingualism are quite common conditions throughout the world and depend on factors such as the populations’ mobility as well as the countries’ cultural and linguistic background. Therefore, as explained in Williams & Stroud (2013), many populations use two or more languages in their day-to-day life. Usually, in countries where two or more languages are spoken, people tend to give more importance to one of them, which is considered socially prominent. For instance, South Africa presents 11 official languages which, according to the country’s constitution, should be treated with equal esteem and should be equally present in children’s education. Nonetheless, the article by Rossouw & Pascoe (2018) maintains that many parents “want their children to be educated in English rather than in their home language owing to the perceived higher status of English” (p. 1). The same article deals with the case study of an isiXhosa-English-speaking child. IsiXhosa is the second most widely spoken language in South Africa, with 16% of the population speaking it as a home language – according to Statistics South Africa (2012), and belongs to the group of Bantu languages (specifically, it belongs to the Nguni group, together with isiZulu and SiSwati and isiNdebele). Previous research on Bantu languages has been conducted (e.g., Demuth, 2003; Katherine Demuth is the founding Director of the Child Language Lab and the Director of the Centre for Language Sciences) in terms of the acquisition of noun classes, verbal morphology, syntactic structures, and phonology. Some research (e.g., Suzman & Tshabalala, 2000) also focused on the nature of language impairment in isiZulu-speaking children. As explained in the article by Kohnert (2010), clinicians should consider three factors when dealing with – simultaneous or sequential – bilinguals: the possibly uneven distribution of language skills in the languages children speak, the cross-linguistic interaction which may take place, and the difficulty in comparing the linguistic performances of bilinguals, as they make up a heterogeneous group, due to factors such as the age of acquisition, exposure to each language and the opportunity to use each language. Pascoe et al. (2015) found that backing, a phonological process considered non-developmental in English that involves substituting sounds that should be articulated at the front of the mouth for sounds made at the back of it, was prevalent in isiXhosa-English bilinguals. Evidence of such phonological process was found again in the study by Rossouw & Pascoe (2018), which however considered isiXhosa speech as well. Another process that, according to this study, is significantly more present in isiXhosa-English bilinguals than monolinguals, is cluster reduction (Pascoe et al., 2015), caused by the effects of one language on the other. Indeed, IsiXhosa makes very little use of clusters, and consequently, bilinguals who speak such language find it more difficult to produce them in another language.

Figure 2. It is useful to keep in mind that there is a fundamental difference between language delay and language disorder that can happen in bilingual children as well as in monolongual ones.

Approaches concerning the treatment of bilingual children with developmental language disorders varied from time to time. Some studies (e.g., Ray, 2002; Mamdouh, 2008) provided intervention in only one of the multilingual child’s languages. On the contrary, Ramos and Mead (2014) provided intervention in both languages of the bilingual subjects. This last approach generally resulted in a better outcome in terms of a more effective enhancement of children’s communicative ability. What the study by Rossouw & Pascoe (2018) seems to suggest is that “if a targeted error pattern or phoneme is common to both languages, intervention in one language may result in generalization of results to the untreated language” (p. 8). Such a conclusion is reasonably consistent with what was found in previous studies (e.g., Holm and Dodd, 2001 or Mamdouh, 2008), which reported cases where the targeted error or phoneme was apparently specific to the treated language or however uncommon in the untreated one. The case study presented in Rossouw & Pascoe (2018) indeed showed that intervention that used targets from only one language on an isiXhosa-English-speaking child who made use of gliding of [l] (namely producing the liquid phoneme as [j] in both languages), resulted in generalization to the untreated language (English). Arguably, right now data are still limited so it is difficult to assess the systematicity of treatments’ results. Nonetheless, cases like the one treated here put the basis for further research, which would be needed to extend these findings to a wider population.

Figure 3. Intervention on phonology in bilingual children with DLD seems to have better a outcome when focused on both languages spoken by the subject.

The condition of bilingualism clearly poses some difficulties to clinicians as far as treatment of developmental language disorders is concerned. Bilingualism and the importance of the bilingual context, along with the cognitive abilities of bilingual speakers have been one main focus of the research of Andrea Marini, who is a professor in Neurolinguistics at the University of Udine. As explained in Marini et al. (2019), developing children exposed to a bilingual context may be incorrectly diagnosed with a developmental language disorder or, in contrast, subjects with an actual DLD exposed to two or more languages may not be correctly diagnosed. Such errors in the diagnosis of a DLD are referred to as overdiagnosis (or mistaken identity) in the former case and underdiagnosis (or missed identity) in the latter. Nevertheless, a growing amount of evidence (e.g., Paradis et al. 2011; Marini et al., 2016) shows that adequate exposure to two languages – as well as to one language – results in similar outcomes in terms of language development. Moreover, exposure to a bilingual context does not seem to constitute a risk factor for lexical development as well (Marini et al., 2017). Some factors seem to be more strongly related to the final linguistic attainment, such as the age of first exposure to L2 (Cattani, 2014) and additional effects on cognitive abilities. Among them, a prominent role in language learning and processing is played by phonological short-term and working memory (Verhagen & Leseman, 2016; Riva et al., 2017). Another cognitive process that crucially interacts with language is attention. Attention may be broadly defined as “a set of cognitive processes involved in the selection of internal and external stimuli for processing” (Ebert et al., 2019, p. 979). Attention and language are hypothesized to interact in both bilingual children and children with DLD. Bilingualism is believed to generally enhance attentional control (i.e., the ability to focus on relevant stimuli), as a result of the systematic switching between the two languages (Kapa & Colombo, 2013). On the other hand, children with DLD show some weaknesses attention-wise (Montgomery et al., 2009). According to Ebert (who is a member of the department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities) et al. (2019):

Language and attention may interact and shape each other in multiple ways. Two prominent examples of such interactions are the proposed influence of dual language exposure on the development of attention and the possible influence of attention on the development of language skills in children with developmental language disorder (DLD). (p. 979)

The cognitive skills of bilinguals have been the object of recent research: the scientific debate on what is referred to as the “bilingual advantage” is in fact still ongoing. Indeed, attentional control has been a pivotal focus of the literature on the topic (see Arizmendi et al., 2018). Even if debated, it seems that exposure to two languages in early childhood grants an enhancement of the executive attention network, leading to a stronger attentional control. As for children with DLD, Boerma et al. (2017) explain that deficits in sustained attention may cause a slower language acquisition process, due to the impossibility of affected children to elaborate on all relevant input. Nonetheless, the study by Ebert et al. (2019) did not find any significant relation between bilingualism, DLD, and non-linguistic measures of attention. In other words: “there is no basis to believe that bilingualism either exacerbates or ameliorates subtle deficits in nonlinguistic attention skills that are associated with DLD” (Ebert et al., 2019, p. 990).

Children speaking english and spanish
Figure 4. Cognitive abilities have an additional effect on the language learning process in bilinguals.

In conclusion, the present article wanted to survey the current knowledge on bilingualism and its implications on developmental language delay (or disorder). As explained in Marini (2012), in bilingual children “both languages can be impaired at the same pace and in the same way.” Thus, these subjects’ language development process is characterized by a significant delay, even in absence of other physical, intellectual, and cognitive deficits. Overall data seem to suggest that a developmental language disorder can have implications for all languages spoken by a bilingual subject. As far as clinicians’ intervention is concerned, current knowledge suggests that, on the one hand, an intervention based on one language can produce a generalization of the non-treated language, whereas on the other hand, an intervention focusing on both languages can produce more significant outcomes.

Bibliographical References

Arizmendi, G. D., Alt, M., Gray, S., Hogan, T. P., Green, S., & Cowan, N. (2018). Do Bilingual Children Have an Executive Function Advantage? Results From Inhibition, Shifting, and Updating Tasks. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49(3), 356–378.

Boerma, T., Leseman, P., Wijnen, F., & Blom, E. (2017). Language Proficiency and Sustained Attention in Monolingual and Bilingual Children with and without Language Impairment. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Cattani, A., Abbot-Smith, K., Farag, R., Krott, A., Arreckx, F., Dennis, I., & Floccia, C. (2014). How much exposure to English is necessary for a bilingual toddler to perform like a monolingual peer in language tests? International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 49(6), 649–671.

Damico, J. S., Müller, N., & Ball, M. J. (2021). The Handbook of Language and Speech Disorders (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics) (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.

Demuth, K. (2003). The acquisition of Bantu languages. In Nurse D., Philippson G. (Eds.), The Bantu Languages (pp. 209–222). Surrey: Curzon Press.

Ebert, K. D., Rak, D., Slawny, C. M., & Fogg, L. (2019). Attention in Bilingual Children With Developmental Language Disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 62(4), 979–992.

Gutiérrez-Clellen, V., & Restrepo, M. A., (2004). “Grammatical impairments in Spanish-English bilingual children”. In Goldstein B. (ed.) Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers (pp. 213-34). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes

Holm, A., & Dodd, B. (2001). Comparison of Cross-Language Generalisation Following Speech Therapy. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 53(3), 166–172.

Kapa, L. L., & Colombo, J. (2013). Attentional control in early and later bilingual children. Cognitive Development, 28(3), 233–246.

Kohnert, K. (2010). Bilingual children with primary language impairment: Issues, evidence and implications for clinical actions. Journal of Communication Disorders, 43(6), 456–473.

Mamdouh, H. (2008). Management of delayed language affecting phonology in a bilingual child. El Minia Medical Bulletin, 19(1), 38-45.

Marini, A., Urgesi, C., & Fabbro, F. (2012). Clinical neurolinguistics of bilingualism. The Handbook of the Neuropsychology of Language, 2, 738-759.

Marini, A., Eliseeva, N., & Fabbro, F. (2016). Impact of early second-language acquisition on the development of first language and verbal short-term and working memory. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 22(2), 165–176.

Marini, A., Ruffino, M., Sali, M. E., & Molteni, M. (2017). The Role of Phonological Working Memory and Environmental Factors in Lexical Development in Italian-Speaking Late Talkers: A One-Year Follow-Up Study. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60(12), 3462–3473.

Marini, A., Sperindè, P., Ruta, I., Savegnago, C., & Avanzini, F. (2019). Linguistic Skills in Bilingual Children With Developmental Language Disorders: A Pilot Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

Montgomery, J. W., Evans, J. L., & Gillam, R. B. (2009). Relation of auditory attention and complex sentence comprehension in children with specific language impairment: A preliminary study. Applied Psycholinguistics, 30(1), 123–151.

Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. B. (2011). Dual Language Development & Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism & Second Language Learning, Second Edition (CLI) (Second Edition, New edition). Paul H Brookes Pub Co.

Morgan, R., Meldrum, K., Bryan, S., Mathiesen, B., Yakob, N., Esa, N., & Ziden, A. A. (2017). Embedding digital literacies in curricula: Australian and Malaysian experiences. In G. B. Teh & S. C. Choy (Eds.), Empowering 21st century learners through holistic and enterprising learning: Selected papers from Tunku Abdul Rahman University College International Conference 2016 (pp. 11-19). Springer.

Pascoe, M., Le Roux, J., Mahura, O., Danvers, E., de Jager, A., Esterhuizen, N., & van der Merwe, A. (2015). Three-year-old children acquiring South African English in Cape Town. In Proceedings of the International Symposium on Monolingual and Bilingual Speech (pp. 277-287).

Ray, J. (2002). Treating Phonological Disorders in a Multilingual Child. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 11(3), 305–315.

Riva, V., Cantiani, C., Dionne, G., Marini, A., Mascheretti, S., Molteni, M., & Marino, C. (2017). Working memory mediates the effects of gestational age at birth on expressive language development in children. Neuropsychology, 31(5), 475–485.

Rossouw, K., & Pascoe, M. (2018). Intervention for bilingual speech sound disorders: A case study of an isiXhosa–English-speaking child. South African Journal of Communication Disorders, 65(1).

Statistics South Africa. (2012). Census 2011 census in brief. Pretoria. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from Census_in_brief.pdf

Suzman, S. M., & Tshabalala, B. (2000). Investigation of language impairment in Zulu. South African Journal of Communication Disorders, 47(special), 25-34.

Verhagen, J., & Leseman, P. (2016). How do verbal short-term memory and working memory relate to the acquisition of vocabulary and grammar? A comparison between first and second language learners. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 141, 65–82.

Williams, Q. E., & Stroud, C. (2013). Multilingualism in transformative spaces: contact and conviviality. Language Policy, 12(4), 289–311.

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2 comentários

Seb Petroni
Seb Petroni
21 de ago. de 2022

Very interesting article. It makes me wonder if my attentional control was enhanced as a young child, and then as I developed only speaking English, my sustained attention possibly lessened over the years. The age of acquisition and the possibly uneven distribution of language skills in the languages children speak are two very important elements to consider. Earlier is definitely better in terms of long-term retention, as even now, being mostly around English speakers, internally I still have a vague understanding of Italian or English words with Italian roots. Simply speaking and hearing the second language is not always enough to understand it — I find the reading in the language offers a third dimension. This article is quite thought-provoking!


Very well written article with a deep analysis of the relations between language disorders and bilingualism. It was very interesting learning about language delay in bilingual speakers and the possible interventions on it. Moreover, the bibliography is very extensive and up-to-date.

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Antonio Verolino

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