Under 5's

Stammering and the bilingual child

During the pre-school years, virtually all children learn to speak one language well. Across the world there are millions of children who grow up learning to understand and speak more than one language. Research has shown that young children are easily able to learn at least two languages simultaneously.

Between the ages of two and five years, some children repeat words and phrases and hesitate with "em's" and "er's". This is normal when a child is sorting out what to say next.

About five in every hundred children stammer for a time when they are learning to talk. Given that it is considered that about 50% of the world's population is bilingual, there is a large number of children who are showing signs of stammering whilst learning to speak more than one language. However, this does not mean that there is a link between stammering and being bilingual. There is no evidence to suggest that learning more than one language causes stammering.

What is Bilingualism?

In the UK there are many children who have access to, or need to use two or more languages at home and at school or nursery.

One way of defining bilingualism in young children is where they have been spoken to, or speak, two or more languages from a very young age. This would include children who have been spoken to in two languages in the home, or where they have a home language that is different to the language spoken in their childcare provision.

Some children may be referred to as second language learners. A child may have spoken only one language at home since birth and then be exposed to a second language when they start nursery or school.

Recommendations and Suggestions for Parents

Research has shown that a child's language skills can affect his or her ability to speak fluently. Many young children who are in the early stages of stammering will show an increase in stammering when they use longer more complex sentences and learn new or longer words. There is evidence from recent research that some children who stammer have advanced language skills for their age when compared with children of the same age who are speaking fluently.

Many treatment methods for early stammering suggest that it is best to simplify the language being spoken to a young child who stammers, to enable them to be more fluent. But what happens if your child speaks more than one language?

Q1) My child has started to stammer. Could this be because we are speaking two languages at home? What should we do?

There is no evidence to suggest that children who have two languages in the home are more likely to stammer. Exposing a child to one or more languages at this early stage is giving him or her opportunity to become competent in both languages.

Managing early dysfluency in a bilingual child is really very similar to the guidelines for a child who speaks one language. Please see the BSA leaflet Does your young child stammer? In addition it is helpful for you to:

  • Continue using two languages at home
  • Show your child how to speak languages well by speaking them one at a time and not mixing up vocabulary.
  • Let your child mix up the two languages, as this is a natural stage for bilingual children. Continue to speak the languages properly yourselves but don't ask him or her to repeat it correctly.

If stammering continues for more than a few weeks or seems to be getting worse, you should arrange to see a speech and language therapist.

Q2) My son speaks only Urdu at home and is about to start nursery where only English is spoken. What will this do to his stammer? What should I do?

It may feel a bit strange at first for your child being in a new environment and hearing a new language around him. As with any child who is starting nursery, it will be important that he is given time to settle in and get used to the new routine. For some children who stammer, a change in their life such as starting nursery can lead to a temporary increase in dysfluency. Try to be as consistent as you can with other daily routines and your management of his general behaviour at this time.

Like most young children, your son will probably be able learn a new language very quickly. However, allow him to do so at his own pace and continue to speak to him in Urdu at home as before. It would be helpful for you to explain to nursery staff that he stammers so that they are aware that they may need to consider how they are going to manage his speech. Give them a copy of the BSA's leaflet Does your young child stammer? as this has very useful suggestions about how to respond to a child who stammers. The leaflet can be obtained free from the BSA.

If you remain concerned about your child's speech once he has settled into nursery, arrange to see a speech and language therapist

Q3) My child speaks two languages and also stammers. Can you tell me why he stammers more in one language than the other?

In bilingual children, we sometimes see more stammering in one language than another. Often, a child might stammer most in the primary language i.e. the one in which he /she has the greatest linguistic skill. His/her sentences in this language are likely to be longer and more complicated and therefore place more demands on the child's ability to be fluent. Sometimes, we might see a child stammering more in the language spoken at school than in the home language. This difference may be to do with the greater demands that the school situation places on the child's speech.

Q4) My child is having therapy for his stammer in English. Should I do the therapy practice with him at home in English also?

It is usually best to conduct therapy in the language that you would usually use with your child. Most therapists will carry out therapy in English. However, it can easily be done in your home language and it is likely that it will feel more natural for you and your child if you are speaking your usual language. Also, if you are not confident about speaking English it would be more appropriate for you to use your mother tongue when doing the therapy practices at home. Many speech and language therapists work with bilingual co-workers or interpreters who can help you to understand the therapy and how you can work at home with your child in your own language.

With thanks to Corinne Moffatt, Specialist Speech and Language Therapist, Tower Hamlets PCT, for taking the lead role in the production of this leaflet.

July 2003