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I have a three year old boy. At home we speak our native language to him and in nursery he speaks English. He seems to have very good understanding of what we say in our native language and reasonable understanding of what is spoken to him in English. He says first syllables of quite a few words in both languages, but does not form sentences of more than two "words", e.g. "no ka" would mean there's no car or the equivalent of "little dog", etc.

As his play becomes more complicated, he wants to explain the rules and he can't and it makes him very frustrated. There are a lot of answers on this site and elsewhere saying "don't worry up to age of 2", but he's about 3 and I worry.

Anything we can do to speed it up?

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THANK YOU: Thank you all for answers! I'll leave this question open for now and either close it when he starts speaking properly at which point i'll report back timelines for the sake of other parents or when an extraordinary answer comes here. But from what I understand - it varies case by case and we probably just need to be patient. –  Konrads May 14 '13 at 12:43
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3 Answers

When an adult doesn't know a word in a foreign language, they will resort to complicated sentences that have lots of subordinate clauses (i.e. that thing I used to eat cereal with). That would be way out of the range of a kid in the 2 word sentence phase. So he's looking for the right pair of words to express himself.

I've read that vocab acquisition is less magical than it seems-- the kids benefit from people making an effort to illustrate a word (visually & in action). When they learn a word just from immersion they have to solve a lot of problems, like where one word stops and where the next starts, of all the things in the environment that it could mean, what does it mean, and how broad is the meaning.

I've also read that when a kid uses two different languages in two domains, he can end up with disjoint vocabulary, i.e. he knows desk, chalkboard, playground in English, but not in Spanish. So parents would have to either tolerate language mixing when the topic switches to one of those domains or give special attention to talking about those sort of things at home as well.

And finally, the bit about being 3. There is a universal (in the US) rush to attribute any language difficulties to bilingualism-- mostly its xenophobia. There are challenges in bilingualism, but this actually isn't a real problem-- (not getting enough exposure to one language of the other is the huge problem, things like language mixing turns out to be a nonissue) On the other hand, it is possible for a child to by crazy chance to have a developmental problem and be in a bilingual household. "Raising a Bilingual Baby" by Pearson has a good chapter on detecting children who happen to have a developmental issue and happen to be in a bilingual home (one doesn't cause the other)

Ref: Raising a Bilingual Baby http://www.amazon.com/Raising-Bilingual-Living-Language-Series/dp/1400023343/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367069814&sr=8-1&keywords=bilingual+raising

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If your son is otherwise progressing well in his development (that "his play becomes more complicated" and "he wants to explain the rules" is an indication of that), I would not worry (and would certainly not start hectic manouevres to speed up his linguistic development).

If you don't feel qualified to judge his general development, don't hesitate to talk to a pediatrician (or two). They will most likely be able to reassure you.

Also, your son's frustration at not being able to express what is on his mind is an indication that he feels the need to learn and will do so (at his own pace).

A further reassuring aspect is that you say he seems to understand language just fine, which is a great achievement at this age when two languages are involved.

Being exposed to two languages does slow down linguistic development in the individual languages. For all the talk about children learning languages effortlessly, coping with two languages instead of one does take a lot more resources, it's not like the effort is the same. So give him time and he will get there.

Our three children have all had their own pace in acquiring language. At an age when one of them recited poems, the other was still struggling with stringing two words together. It's normal for children to develop at different speeds in different aspects.

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Experience from my bilingual family set up (5 year-old child):

First of all, I don't think you should worry.

Second, I don't think you need to look for any pediatrician advice at this point.

Third: the situation may me more related to the parents than to the child. If both parents work full time, and pre-school is in English, the child will have to work a little harder to make sense in both languages, but he or she will survive very well....

Fourth: anxiety to speed things up may actually slow things down... So take a deep breath, be patient and don't be negative to your son.

I don't think correcting the toddler is a good idea in general, just translate in the right way after improper use of the language. Imagine this converstation: "Mom, je parle English! No, that's English and French! Either speak English or Cantonese or (...) with me." This kind of correction may inhibit his language development. He does not need a teacher to correct, but a parent to help.

He will do ok (based on your short description, maybe life is more complicated).

Relax.

There is nothing wrong with "I want alimento". "That's right, it's lunch time, I want some food, too."

If you can, spend some time (a few weeks) back to your native land where he can find other children speaking the same language. They need strong community (at his age, the community of the little ones) support to speak both languages in the long term. As adults in multi ethnic families, the people who get upset about their bilingual childhood are the ones who actually didn't have the bilingual experience (some parents prefer to speak in English than native language...). They wish they had had it. The ones who had it, it's either a normal thing of life or a plus (as adult, not teenager....).

Update: We had spent a few weeks in my native country 2 and half years ago. That was fantastic and made miracles in her ability AND desire to speak in my native language. I just came back from a 10 day trip, and her language also improved. My daughter was fine tuning her English (specially her "a" sound as 'apple', 'cat', and this dragged the other language... The trip helped again. I don't know if she would fix the second language anyway (I just have one life :), but her second native language is back to her normal.

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