Why Are Bilingual Babies Slower to Start Talking?

September 15, 2014
Why Are Bilingual Babies Slower to Start Talking?

Professional translators often enjoy a fascination with language from an early age, but how old do translators tend to be when they start talking? The answer seems to depend on their country or origin. 

Denmark vs. Croatia 

A famous cross-linguistic study into syntactic processing in children and adults from 2010 compared the performance of Danish and Croatian children when it came to language learning. The results were fascinating, showing that by the age of 15 months, Croatian children could speak more than double the amount of words that their Danish counterparts could. 

The reason seems to be the complexity of the Danish language. With nine vowels and over 40 variations of long and short vowel sounds, according to Nina Grønnum, linguist and author of Rødgrød med Fløde, plus a deeply embedded slurring and blending of words, it can be hard for those learning Danish (regardless of their age) to identify the individual sounds and words within a sentence. 

Advice from the NHS for those helping infants to develop their language skills in the UK is to use short, simple sentences, so that infants can hear the words more clearly. For infants learning Danish, the lack of clarity in the spoken language means that it takes them longer to pick up and imitate individual words. 

Bilingual Children

Interestingly, children in bilingual households can also seem to experience a delay when it comes to learning to talk. According to Patti Hamaguchi, author of Childhood Speech, Language, and Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know:

There's often a slight lag in the development of both languages in a bilingual household. Over time, though, bilingual children can catch up with their peers and have the benefit of communicating in two languages with proficiency.”

Of course, once the initial delay has been overcome, children who grow up speaking two languages find themselves with many advantages, including those in the professional world, where they have more doors open to them than their monolingual counterparts. 

Levelling Out

Despite the early delays experienced by infant speakers of Danish and other complex languages, as well as by children of bilingual households, the speed at which language is learned evens out during childhood.

Children who speak later may do so for a variety of reasons. The complexity of the language they are trying to learn or indeed their own nature may lead to delayed speech development. 

Albert Einstein is widely rumoured to have not spoken until he was four years old. Though biographers have disproven the claim, Abraham Pais, author of Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein did find that Einstein’s parents had concerns about their child’s mental competence due to the unusually long time it took him to speak. 

Regardless of the age at which children initially begin to speak, childhood is a great leveller, evening out the development of different nationalities and of children of bilingual households with every year that passes. 

What are your views on the difference between languages when it comes to child development? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment in the box.