Although stuttering at the preschool age is normal in every language, shameful stigmas and mythical cures are deeply ingrained in many cultures. Despite the sensational headlines, being bilingual does not cause stuttering, and speech difficulties do not result from breastfeeding too long, tickling too much or cutting your child’s hair too soon. Stuttering is not a condition a child can correct “just by trying,” and it is not cured with nutmeg under the tongue, garlic wrapped around the throat or intense ridicule. What most parents fear to be a serious disability is really just a linguistic developmental hiccup that typically corrects itself over time.
The largest obstacle all young children encounter is that they understand more words than they can speak. In every language around the world, preschoolers struggle to come up with the right words to describe what they ate for lunch, how fast they ran on the playground or how big the dog was down the street. As their excitement increases, so does the potential for tripping over their words.
Bilingual children do face unique challenges in learning the nuances of both languages. They not only have to commit to memory two labels for every object, but they must also determine the nonsensical grammar rules of each language. Although chocolate is chocolate whether it is in English or Spanish, the two languages have different rules about whether to place an adjective, such as yummy, before or after the noun chocolate. As a result, code mixing is very common. Bilingual preschoolers commonly mix words and grammar rules in complex sentences. When they struggle to come up with a word in their second language, they often make literal translations, such as a French child referring to a pinecone as a pineapple. Speech pathologists regard this as a normal process in the development of bilingual skills. In fact, the ability to accurately describe an object is higher among bilingual children since they must pay closer attention to details.
Since bilingual children have to process their racing thoughts in two languages, sentences can come out choppy, words might be repeated, or pauses can last so long that you think the conversation is over. Many bilingual children also appear to have a smaller vocabulary than their peers. However, the combined words they know in each language is usually on target with traditional developmental milestones, including speaking their first words by 12 months old and using two-word phrases by 24 months old.
When It’s Time to Get Concerned
The Stuttering Foundation recommends seeking the services of a speech pathologist if stuttering persists longer than six months. However, bilingual stutters must be held to a different standard than monolingual preschoolers since the speech hesitations must occur in both languages. If most of the stumbling is in the secondary language, then your child is likely just learning the ropes. If treatment is necessary, it should be administered in your child’s strongest language. Most often, improving the dominant language will expand the secondary language skills.