I have a 4-year-old in my class whose native language is Spanish. Although he speaks English, I'm concerned because it's often difficult to understand him when he talks to me or to his peers. I'm not fluent in Spanish, but sometimes he doesn't seem to be speaking in either language I'm not sure if he is confusing words in Spanish with English words, or if there is something else going on. What can I do to help him?

It's very important to determine if the language la i simply in English or also in the child's native language. Understandably, many children have higher levels of language development in the language spoken at home. To discover if that's the case, observe e child talking with his parent. Sometimes, even without understanding what they are saying, you can get a pretty good sense of a higher language level simply from the amount and rhythm of the back-and-forth exchange and through facial expressions. You may see a 3-year-old who rarely talks in an English-speaking environment but is really a little chatterbox in his native language. If someone interprets the parent-child conversation, you can assess where the child is in his native language. If his level is age appropriate, the English will emerge just by his having many opportunities to listen and speak.

Simple Introductions

Start with simple phrases and gradually introduce more complicated ones. Be sure not to encourage the parents to speak English at home if that is not entirely comfortable for them. Contrary to what you may have heard, that is a mistake because the child's ability to think is very likely tied to his native language. In it, he has a lot of sophisticated concepts. He might have four words for different degrees of anger and five for different types of love. If the parents have only a halting command of English and try to talk to the child in English, the quality and subtlety of their language will be affected. That's much too big a price to pay, because thinking ability is the most important thing to protect and nurture in a developing child. A child who can think subtly, abstractly, logically, and creatively is a child who will ultimately do very, very well. So rather than ask the family to converse in English, give the child more exposure to it in class and with peer play. In fact, even if the parents are fluent in English, be sure that they feel comfortable speaking it.

Delays in More Than One Language

So far, we have been talking about a child who is delayed in English but not in the native language. What about the child who is delayed in both languages? We work with him in the same way we work with any child who has a language delay:

  • If it's just an articulation problem, then doing a lot of floor time, interacting and helping the child to talk in meaningful, emotional contexts may be sufficient. You may still decide to consult a speech pathologist.
  • If the child has a receptive- and expressive-language problem and is more than six months delayed, it's essential to consult a speech pathologist, and if recommended, to have speech and language therapy.
  • You can help the child by encouraging him to talk. The idea is not so much to focus on long sentences or correct grammar, but rather on back-and-forth communication. For preschoolers, pretend play is a great context, because the child is motivated and can generate her own creative ideas. In an older child, you can have a lot of reality-based talk about friends, school, and likes and dislikes-and the talk should be opinion-based, rather than fact-based.
  • I recommend that parents do three or four 20- to 30-minute floor-time sessions a day, including pretend play and a lot of back-and-forth interaction, using a lot of language. Not only will this build language skills, but it will provide enjoyable opportunities for parent and child to interact and have fun together.
  • I also recommend that teachers pair up the language-delayed child with another child doing something that involves a lot of back-and-forth talking. Teachers and aides should be conversing with the child, again with a lot of two-way interaction.
  • Children with a language delay are likely to get confused about pronouns or grammar. Don't focus on that initially. You'll have time for that once the child is fairly fluent. So until the point when he can answer "why" questions (Why are you feeling sad? Answer: Because I can't go outside. Why do you want to go outside? Because it's fun to play outside.), I recommend not focusing on grammar or sentence structure. Instead, try to help the child be understood as best he can, and, for as long as you can, keep back-and-forth conversation cooking. Your challenge is to try to be sure that the language delay doesn't cause a thinking delay.
  • Together with the speech pathologist and the parents, look for the sources of the child's language delay.

When Articulation Is the Problem

If getting the words out is the problem, but the child seems to understand a great deal, look at his overall motor system. Look closely at his fine-motor, drawing, and writing abilities, at his athletic and dancing abilities, and ball throwing and catching to see if there are any generalized motor problems. If so, this suggests that the language delay may be a reflection of muscular or motor problems in the oral motor system. When this is the case, do a lot of extra motor activities with the child and possibly bring in an occupational therapist to recommend particular exercises. These might include:

  • Whistling games and blowing games, making different sounds, using the tongue in different parts of the mouth.
  • Make practice fun, with copycat games or "I'll bet you can't do this" games. Always start off with things the child can do.
  • Once the nature of the difficulty is understood, the key to improving is practice, practice, practice. Look for those "teachable" moments. Speech therapy even three times a week may have a beneficial effect, but not nearly as much as daily practice would.
  • If you are working with a child who has not mastered enough words to communicate a lot of what she wants, use signs. These can be standard signs or ones that you make up with the child. You can use pictures to label objects or to indicate desires. For some children who have severe oral-motor problems, you can use a computer-based system, where the child presses symbols and the computer talks for her. Even then, it's still very important to try to get the child to make the sound as well. Don't stop with the sign or the symbol. Use that as an interim step while helping the child to imitate sounds that are at least close to the real ones in the word.

It's very important for children who have language delays, but are otherwise interactive, to be in settings with other children who are communicative. The rhythm of interaction is critical for language development, so it's very important for the child to have communicative and verbal peers. What we want is interaction, interaction, interaction!

It's very important for children who have language delays, but are otherwise interactive, to be in settings with other children who are communicative.