Bilingual and trilingual kids have a slower language development than others, so this is probably quite normal, but our 14 month old daughter talks a lot but doesn't use any words, not even for mum and dad.

I do understand that "Pappa/Daddy/Tata" is complicated with three different words in the three languages, but "Mommy/Mama/Mamma" shouldn't be a problem. She talks a lot, but just nonsense sounds with the exception for the words "Deh", "Dehdeh" and "Gn" which she uses for everything conveying meaning by pointing (there seems to be no pattern in how she uses these three words, except that she says "Dehdeh" very loudly and with a slight questioning tone when she wonders why mom and dad are outside of direct view.)

She seems quite bright in other things, so it's just the language that trails. So I wonder if there is anything we can do to speed up the language development. I've tried pointing and saying "mamma" and "pappa" and "Elenor" but she only gets that she should point, and will invariably points to herself. :-)

(For the umpteenth time: I'm not worried that anything is wrong. I do not ask if something is wrong, or how to check if something is wrong or what to do when something is wrong).

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    According to The Bilingual Edge all scientific evidence says that multilingual children do not have a slower language development than others. According to the research differences in timing are only do to the standard differences between children.
    – guidoism
    Commented Jun 5, 2011 at 23:42
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    @guidoism: Interesting claim, but highly doubtful. With three different words for everything, getting the basics going will be more tricky, and everyone else agree that it takes longer for multilingual kids to start speaking. Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 8:44
  • Yeah, I thought that it was interesting too, but the authors of the book are both researchers in the areas of bilingualism and language teaching methods and they claim that there have been many studies done to try to demonstrate the common sense argument but none of those studies have been successful. Though, it's certainly possible that the authors are discounting the success of those studies, ignoring others, or no one yet has constructed a good enough study.
    – guidoism
    Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 14:12
  • @guidoism: Or they are looking at the wrong things. For example: Say that even trilingual kids say "mommy" when they are one. And by three they speak long sentences. But what happens inbetween? Will they really speak as much by 18 months, etc? The claims I've seen about it say that they don't. Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 14:17
  • My own experience says no, all the multilingual kids I have seen speak later than single language kids I know.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 13:17

6 Answers 6


Tri-linguistic ability is improved the same way you improve language skills in general. Most important to remember is that language is contextual. My experience is that thinking in a particular language comes naturally if the context is kept consistent, for example: one person speaks one language (caregiver speaks Spanish, Mom speaks English, Dad speaks French), or there is a context for the language (daycare is French, swimming lessons are English).

Here are some benchmarks for Language Development in children. The key is that pre-verbal children can understand what you say.

  • Have them practice pre-verbal skills (see the second page): eye-contact, attention, breath control, turn taking.

  • Have them choose/point to the correct: colour, number, animal, person, etc. This will help build and confirm their vocabulary.

  • Ask questions that require them to respond. Simple questions where they can indicate understanding by pointing are fine. "Would you like to play with the red ball or the blue ball?" Be sure to emphasize the words you are drawing attention to. Then encourage them to make the sound by repeating the word and emphasizing the start of the word.

  • Keep in mind that different sounds are mastered earlier than others. This is why children usually learn to say "dad" before "mom" and they say repeating syllables like "da-da" before say "daddy". Wikipedia has some good information on babbling and speech production.

Knowing the benchmarks might help you focus your activities (teach to the test). Here are some warning signs that there may be language delay:

When to get help

Call your child's doctor or a speech pathologist if your child:

12 to 18 months

  • at 12 months, doesn't use gestures such as waving or shaking her head
  • by 12 months, isn't practicing using at least a couple of consonants (p, b, etc.)
  • by 12 months, isn't somehow communicating to you when she needs help with something
  • at 15 months, doesn't understand and respond to words such as "no" and "bye-bye"
  • by 15 months, can't say at least one to three words by 15 months, doesn't say "mama" or "dada"
  • at 16 months, doesn't point to body parts when asked
  • at 18 months, isn't saying at least 15 words

Seek help if you need to but don't stress about it. Having a good relationship with your child is the foundation for their progress.


Repetition, repetition, repetition.

At 14 months she's still soaking up the nuances of the languages, she won't really get a good grasp on using them herself for another 4-5 months honestly.

Keep exposing her like you're doing, use positive reinforcement - and try making it into a game. We did this with Matthias at that age, encouraging him to interact with us while we used different languages.

My husband would say, "Hvem er far?" etc and encourage Matthias to point in response. I did the same in English.

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    I think 14 months is too early to be concerned even for single language households. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 16:57
  • @Karl: Well, I'm not concerned as such, but single-language development sites all say that they should say a couple of words at 12 months. Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 14:20
  • @Lennart My son was also a bit behind when compared to his single language peers. He's 3 and can jibberjabber the same as them now, but in both Danish and English.
    – Darwy
    Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 14:50
  • Agreed, my bilingual son is 14 months and barely shows any interest in talking, but ask him to do something in either language and he gets it. I'd say give it time, my oldest was almost a two before he really started talking in either language.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 16:59
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    @Lennart I wouldn't put much credibility in the statement that all single language kids should be able to say a few words at 12 months. That just puts undue pressure on the parents. My bilingual son is 20 month now and doesn't say real words yet, but I'm not worried. It'll come soon enough. Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 19:02

I think your child is firmly within the normal range of deviation. And don't forget that all these claims stating that "children start to do X at the age of N" are only about the average, with a huge deviation. Examples from my own family:

  • My brother (unilingual) didn't say a single word until over the age of 2 (I will need to double check the precise age with my dad). Then he started saying sentences straight away.
  • Out of our own two (bilingual) daughters, the elder uttered her first short sentences at the age of 1y, while
  • the younger started to use words consistently at 1,5y, and sentences closer to 2y.

So take it easy. I don't think you can "improve" her language development, other than giving her ample opportunities to soak in the language(s), taking care of being consistent (i.e. each person using one single language consistently - preferably his/her mother tongue - to communicate with her), which I understand you already know and do anyway.

  • When I wrote this I wasn't worrying. But at this point she still has trouble with mommy/daddy, and I'm starting to think we are doing something wrong. She are developing, and start to use words (sometimes made up by herself), but amid this, she still don't understand that I'm daddy and my wife is mommy. It's very strange to me. That said, I'm not asking if it is "normal". I'm asking for recommendations of what to do to help her. Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 21:20
  • @Lennart, I think the important question is: does she understand you, e.g. when given (simple) instructions? If she does, IMHO everything is OK. Btw I guess your mother tongue is Swedish/Danish and the local (and your wife's?) is Polish - is the third language English? Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 22:00
  • She does understand, and yes, Swedish, Polish, English. Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 5:47
  • @Lennart, do you actually talk English to your daughter, or only between yourself and your wife? Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 13:48
  • I try to only speak Swedish to my daughter. Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 18:49

"Nuture Shock" by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman contains a very good chapter on language learning of infants. My gist on your question what you might do to improve language learning & talking:

  • Do not point at things and label them, but name whatever the baby is looking at.
  • Do not try to interpret what the baby might be thinking or intending. When the kid holds a spoon and says "Buh buh", don't go off with "Bottle? Do you want the bottle?". This will just mess up the kids association of word to thing. Label everything that becomes of interest to the toddler. Object labeling of more than 200 objects per day for the toddler has been correlated with improved vocabulary later on.
  • Elicit attention to objects not by pointing but by holding and moving the object (the authors describe how circling fruit pieces into the mouth of a toddler is combined with singing the word fruit)
  • Babbling is good. Encourage it, by touching or responding to your infant as fast as possible (for touch less than 5 seconds is suggested, for sounds immediately). The authors suggest that this will easily double the rate of verbal interaction of the child.
  • Ensure a high rate of word interactions for your child.
  • Ensure that your face is visible to the child while you talk. Babies need to be able to see the talker to separate sounds into words.
  • Using high-pitched "parenthese" sing-song talking has been shown to be easier comprehensible to babies.

I just got this book Child Sense a few weeks ago and it suggests that children learn through a dominant sense. My niece is very visual. She had a very large vocabulary because all her caregivers did flash cards with her (not knowing she was visual but because it was working, they kept at it). Now 25 months old, she speaks in full sentences and loves dresses and looking at herself in the mirror and camera. She'll call little items and babies "cute". She is definitely visual.

My daughter (only 9 months so not at all talking) seems to be more physical/tactile so I go through my day telling her what each thing is and have her touch the items. I don't focus on the flash cards which I bought because of the success with my niece. My daughter just grabs and eats them :) Of course, I cannot attest to any success yet but I included it just to show what the book says to do for a tactile child.

More examples are:

  • A taste/smell child learns best outdoors. Being outside seems to calm them down because they are the most sensitive of the groups. They like rituals and don't travel well.
  • An auditory child learns best through song.

You go through a personality Q&A to try to group your child into a dominant sense. Fair warning, as with most if not all parenting books, it worked for some; it failed for some.


And from personal experience, my friend's daughter had a difficult time picking up any language in a multilanguage home as well. The doctors suggested to switch to one language as they thought she was getting "confused". It turned out her inner ear had not developed properly and it wasn't until the 5th grade that her mom decided to get her hearing checked. She now has a hearing aid but her speech is very poor because she wasn't hearing the diction/enunciation properly so she mumbles a lot and her words sound "fuzzy" if that makes any sense. She had 2 or 3 preauricular skin tags by her ear - I don't know if they are related to each other but I mentioned it in case your child also has skin tags, maybe it was just a coincidence for my friend. You might want to ask your pediatrician about when/why a hearing test would be called for. You are within the normal parameters as others have said.

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    Heh. I read the description, and my daughter fits all of the types at the same time. :-) Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 5:56
  • @Lennart, that's the problem then - she just can't make up her mind about which way to learn :-) Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 13:45

My gut is that your child is fine, however, if you are worried you are your child's best advocate and you know your child best, go with your gut and have them evaluated for your peace of mind.

I have had two of my children tested for language issues. There is a program here in CT that allows you to do this for free. Do some research in your area to see if this is offered where you are; if not testing can be pretty expensive but probably worth your peace of mind.

If you are worried have your child evaluated, it will save you the worry and heartache and if there is a problem it will be addressed.

Even if there is no problem they can give you techniques specific for your child about what to do to encourage speaking.

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    I seem to have trouble communicating this, even though I've stated it repeatedly: I'm not worried that anything is wrong. I'm asking how I can help the language development on it's path. The question in the topic is the question I am asking. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 17:19
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    @LennartRegebro it seems to me that if you are asking the question you have an underlying concern. Sorry for not staying on topic, however I still maintain, don't sweat it, the language will come. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 17:39
  • I've added to my answer, to address your concerns. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 17:43
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    +1: Don't understand why this was voted down. Getting your kid checked early for language development issues is hardly a BAD idea.
    – deworde
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 18:19
  • 1
    @deworde, it was downvoted not because it says anything bad, but because it fails to address the question asked.
    – Martha
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 20:13

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