Tri Lingualism and Speech Delay

mrs momo

Registered User
Hi All

My LO is nearly 20mths old but he is not really saying any clear words. Occasionally he will say mama particularly under duress (eg I go out and he stays at home :PPP) I have heard him say bye bye very clearly only once when he was watching tv because the program said bye bye at the end. He la la very well every time after watching the Promise advert when it rains. (I think it is only on the Cantonese channel).

What should I do as I speak to him in English but I would also speak Cantonese when his daddy and inlaws are around. My helper speaks to him in Indonesian so are all these languages delaying his speech?
Some people have advised we should all use one language for the time being until his speech improves. I definitely don't think my child has any other developmental problems so what should I do. He seems to understand all three languages very well but he just can't spit it out. Should I be concern now and also what can I do to improve his speech? Thanks!:thanks
Why does your helper speak Indonesian to him? I would stick to two languages as a max initially. It would make sense to me that if he is hearing three languages right at the age he should be starting to speak that it would make things more difficult for him.
We have been told that being exposed to multiple languages slows down speech. Not sure why 3 langauages would matter more than 2.
But that isn't a negative thing. Just remember this when your LO has asked you "why" for the thousandth time in 3 languages.
yes, multiple languages ususally means a delay in speech. but DON'T WORRY and DON'T STOP!!!!

my boy gets :English (some bad cantonese) from me
Cantonese (some ok English) from daddy
Cantonese (with Hakka accent) from mama
English/Cantonese/Tagalog from helper.

he only could say 2 or 3 words at 20 months. he's now 30 months and doesn't shut up. he currently shows a preference for English, but this is starting to change. and it is perfectly normal for them to use both/all languages at the same time, " i want lee goh." "mummy, don't fan gow!"

just keep it going and eventually he'll get it!

good luck! your son is so lucky to have such a great exposure to different languages!
Last time I heard that it is good to expose babies to different languages as at this stage they can grasp the accent faster than adults. The only u should do is when u speak in one languange u must stick to it. If u speak to your in cantonese then complete the whole conversation in cantonese dont mix english/cantonese etc as that confuses them.

As carang said enjoy a few quiet days and then they will not keep quiet.
i'm not sure if your 20mth old is speech-wise meeting his milestones. that, you probably has to ask your ped. my daughter was exposed to cantonese from me, some well-pronounced english, but gramatically in cantonese from my husband, & in-laws), some tagalog accented english from helper, english & mandarin in playggroups. i also read french books to her, and she hears spanish from dora. she only really started speaking at 24 mths. she's now 30 mths, and she's also talking NON-STOP!! but once she started speaking, she just turbo-ed on. i recently found out that she also learnt a lot of spanish vocab from watching dora, she understands what our filipino helpers are talking about, my putonghua speaking friends say that she understands basic putonghua, and she talks in cantonese/english (just like carang's son) on a daily basis.

if your son is developmenting normally, i wouldn't worry about it. =)
Yeah, I'd say don't worry, too.
I don't think multiple languages will delay the speech.
I think it depends on the child, some will speak early, some will speak a bit later.
As long each of you stick to one language and be consistent.

I speak only English to our son, my husband speaks in Putonghua. Since there're only 2 of us, we can only introduce him to 2 languages.
We did it since our son was a baby.

At 6 months he could call me Mama and my husband Papa when he wanted us (very clear).

At 12 months he started to speak
14 months, short sentences
16 months, long sentences
in BOTH English AND Putonghua.

By 24 months he knew more than one thousand vocabularies in English and hundreds in Putonghua.

He's one of those who can speak early.

So don't worry and keep on taking to him in different languages.
they also say that babies either walk early or talk early. mine was an early walker, walking all the time by himself, without holding hands by 10.5 months!

the seem to need to focus on mastering one thing before they can move on to the next.

but once they grasp the idea.... off they go!

really 20 months is NOT too late!
Thanks all for your replies. I feel so much better as I am more comfortable speaking English to him. I can't read and write Chinese so it makes life easier if I stick to English. I have asked my helper to cut Indonesian but she also forgets too. So funny when she starts counting to him. Anyway thankyou all for your feedback.
I say the more languages at this age the better!

What is the race to start speaking????

The reason people say not more than one language is because they consider a speech delay to be a bad thing ... why??? Because the child is a bit behind his peers? ... that doesn't matter! tis competitive country drives me nuts sometimes - even when you think you do not fall into that box, you really do and you don't even know it!

Research shows that the more languages a child can learn between ages 0-5 the more intelligent he/she will be! ... Because it develops the right side of the brain more, which is the side that becomes more and more redundant as we grow older.

My daughter learned English / German since she was born and Cantonese / Mandarin since she was 1yr (when we moved here). She was very behind her speech development (although ahead in all other milestones) and then when it all clicked into place her speech was excellent - actually better than a lot of toddlers her own age!

I am sorry but I hate it when people say no not too many languages - it will confuse them!!!! ... How can it confuse them when learning how ever many languages is all they know??? Don't base a baby / toddler's way of learning on your own way, because it is totally different - children especially between 0-5 absorb information completely different to you or I. For them learning more than one language is just a very minor thing to add to the thousand of things they are learning / absorbing every single day!
Would agree with most the posters here.

Our kids are exposed to 3 languages regularly (Thai, English and Cantonese).

The eldest, who turns 3 soon, was behind his peers at his playgroup in English language skills. We did get worried especially as his main teacher expressed concern and advised sticking to one language.

However, in the last few months he has started to string small phrases together and has a decent vocab in both Thai and English for sure. cantonese is his lowest exposure but they will get more now he's started kindergarten.

I think our initial impression that he would be slower to begin with but will end up stronger in languages will come through, but there will always be moments of concern until proevn.
Multi-lingual Children

I completely agree with Lollipop - my opinion is don't stop. Our daugher is 3 yrs and speaks English and German fluently - but she was "behind" her monolingual peers if you want to make comparisons of how much she could speak at what age - but she did understand everything. ne day - not all that long ago it just clicked. She went from mixing up English and German in the same sentence to speaking them both fluently. The best advise we were given was to have the parents (for example) each stick to one language rather than going back and forth between two because that apparantly creates some confusion. From birth my husband has only spoken German (his mother tongue) to our daughter and I have only spoken English (my mother tongue) - she responds to both of us in "our" language. As we just moved to HK she has now started in a bilingual pre-school with English and Mandarin - it has only been a few days but she loves it! Good luck to you!
Have found these posts son is exposed to two first languages as my husband and I have different first languages and it is very important to us that he spoke both, especially as my husbands family speak very little English (my first language) and so to really be able to communicate with them it is important that our son speaks their language. Not only that but I think it's a gerat skill to have. I agree you should not stop teaching a child a language because they will be confused....I read that by 5 years old children who may have had speech delays due to being exposed to more than one language will have caught up with their peers...except they will actually be beyond their peers because they will have the benefit of speaking more than one lanuguage!

He's only 10.5 months and I have worried a little over his speech development, although I shan't anymore....he can say Mama (English) and Abba (which is daddy in my husbands language) and that is about it- he speaks non stop, we just don't understand it!

Is that true Cara- babies either walk early or talk early. My 10.5 month old is now walking by himself- he doesn't need to hold anything. Will be interesting to see how his speech develops!
that's always been my experience.

they seem to need all their powers of concentration to master one skill first, then they move onto the next thing...

my almost 7 month old has been crawling for 3 weeks...wonder if she'll walk first or talk first???
Hi There. I am a Developmental Psychologist, and this has been an area of interest of mine for the past few years.

There is a vast amount of cognitive psychological research which strongly suggests that children being exposed to 2 or more languages during the langauge development years will initially slow their language production (not understanding), but that once they start speaking in their own time, their language use is not adversely affected, except that initially they tend to mix languages in together.

Exposing your child to three languages means that he/she will develop the cognitive architecture required for all three languages, which will give him/her more "hooks" to hang language on in the future - in other words, if you know 3 languages it is much easier to learn more, but if you only know one language it is harder to learn a second.

I'd say yout child is extremely fortunate to be exposed to such diversity!
I have big problem with my son's speech delay. He was exposed to 2 language from birth. His development was normal except for his language skill. By 18 months he appeared to not understand any language at all (eg. simple instruction, calling name, pointing). Doctor even suggested that he has autistic features, which is very depressing for us. After that we spent lot of money on language therapy and decide that we will switch to 1 language only. Now he is 2.5 years old and start talking in 2 words combination.

Billingual experience to us is a hauting and expensive one!
i'm sorry that your son is showing some autistic features.

these features however are not caused by using 2 languages at home.

it is also a different situation for children with these features to try to learn two languages. i do know some children with these features that CAN speak and understand 2 or 3 languages, but their speech was VERY delayed. They didn't start speaking until they were about 4 years old. Their mastery of their mother tongue is far superior to their skills in their second and third languages, but they are able to converse quite well in all three languages. the child that i'm referring to is very highly-functioning on the autistic spectrum. and is now in a regular ESF school with only 1 learning support class per week.

good luck with your son!
Thanks carang.

After he was 20 months, we decided to switch to 1 language only and he has shown positive progress. All the autistic features disappeared. He is a little chatter box now although he could not say long sentense yet. He is a happy boy, always wants to go out, especially show interest in interaction with other children of same age. We are happy too. I'm thinking about should I introduce the second language again, this 2nd language is my mother tongue, and English (the language of my son now) is my hubby's first languge.
hi there, very interesting to read this thread. I have been through the same experience as many of the parents here, with trying to teach my son cantonese and english at the same time. DS used to spend a lot of time with grandparents and spoke fluent cantonese. I was worried that his English may be delayed but now he started preschool, he speaks English fluently. Actually I have noticed that he is starting to lose the chinese. Hubby always tries to remind me to speak to him in chinese.
My questions for those in HK (who may have access to more material in chinese preschool education): are there any good chinese storybook and DVD, other than the disney-based ones? It's so much easily to find good story books in english - DS loves to read and we spend a great deal of our bedtime routine reading. I would love to introduce a few chinese books but never come across any. Is there anything I can buy online?
I would recommend the 'I Can Read Myself' series published by Greenfield. The stories are very simple but interesting. I've been using them with my own children and also in my playgroups. Purchase can be made online (, but I'm not sure if they accept overseas order.

There're also simple story books ('My First Chinese Words' series)published by Better Chinese ( These books are used in some international schools as supplementary reading materials and there's a computer disc that goes with them.