The silent period

Do children born in a multilingual environment begin to speak later than monolinguals?

Miből lesz a cserebogár?

The answer is: not necessarily. But just like with any child who grows up with one mother tongue there are differences when the first word or phrase appears - the same happens with those who are educated in several languages. That is to say, months can separate one child’s first word from another child’s. The timing depends above all on the linguistic input of the environment, since there are families that adore silence and others that prefer to speak a lot. Among children we also find some who aspire to order and perfection from a young age and others who are not afraid of risk. I could go on counting the factors that make such a difference.

But what happens when the child learns new languages ​​consecutively? The same, the “phase of silence” always occurs before the first words appear. The term “phase of silence” sounds peaceful – however, it can frighten both parents and teachers. A phase of silence is when, for example, a child begins school or kindergarten in a different language than the one used at home and after a few months, he still does not express himself in that school’s language. In this situation, as with the timing of the first words of his first language, it does not make any sense to compare him with other children. This is because, as we have seen in the case of monolingual children, many factors come into play that influence the duration of this period. The length of the phase of silence depends on several factors. These include personal characteristics, such as their ability in non-verbal communication, whether the environment takes into account the distance between the new language and the language already mastered, how well they have mastered their first language, whether they already know several languages ​​and whether the attitude of the environment to the new language is positive or negative. This period, depending on the factors, can last up to six months. However, it is common for the child to suddenly show a higher level of language use than is expected.

But how should you deal with this phase of silence? How can you ensure that there has been evolution in language learning? We can observe, for example, whether the child has understood our instructions well. For example:

  • We ask them to paint a tree or a car.

• We instruct them in detail, telling them to paint the roof of the house red, the windows blue, and so on.


When we want to read them a story, but it is difficult for us to determine their exact linguistic competence, we can estimate it by observing how well they manage to concentrate on a book. If the text seems too difficult and they struggle to pay attention for a long time, it is a good idea to offer them linguistically easier texts, or not to read but explain the story in your own words.  Patience is essential in the period of silence and we can be sure that one day the phase  will end. If you feel worried, it is advisable to consult an expert in multilingual education.

Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona

You might have seen me at the UAB.