During a three-year study involving Essex and eight other UK universities, academics interviewed almost 400 families with two-year-old children who speak English and another language.
They were able to demonstrate for the first time that those learning English and a phonetically or grammatically similar language, such as Dutch or German, knew more words in their other language than those learning more distant languages, such as Mandarin or Greek.
The team used the findings to create the first toolkit to help health professionals accurately assess how bilingual children’s language skills are developing.
Dr Claire Delle Luche, from our Department of Language and Linguistics, was part of the team. She said: “Bilingual children are typically a bit behind in vocabulary size. We found out that this is especially true if the child hears little of one language, or if the two languages are very different. Our tool will help professionals in their evaluation of a bilingual child's vocabulary whether it is typical of a bilingual or suggesting a language development delay."
With figures suggesting almost 20% of children in the UK are bilingual, the findings could have major implications for young people’s personal and professional prospects, as well as national health and education systems.
Researchers hope their UK Bilingual Toddler Assessment Toolkit (UKBTAT) will become a standard component in the health assessment carried out on all two-year-olds. It can also be used by a wide range of health practitioners, including speech and language therapists, social workers, educational psychologists and GPs.
The toolkit includes lists of familiar words in English and 13 other languages, which parents tick off when their child can recognise or say them. It also includes a questionnaire which assesses how much time the child is exposed to English or their additional language. The answers are processed through a statistical model, to produce a result which shows where the child is in comparison to the national average across the UK. This will allow practitioners to identify those who may need extra support with their language development.
The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), involved academics from Plymouth, Bangor, Birmingham, Kent, Liverpool, Oxford, Coventry and East Anglia, as well as Essex. It has been published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development.