How to Help a Bilingual Child Going Through the “Silent Period”

Are you trying to teach your child two languages at the same time? Is your child not really showing a lot of progress and, in fact, showing that he or she is regressing or not really talking? Trying to teach your child a foreign language plus keeping up with the home language can be an overwhelming task!

What is the “silent period” and why is it important?

The Silent Period is a concept developed by Stephen Krashen and it simply refers to the period before a child starts speaking a second language in which he or she spends time watching and listening to people using the language. During this time, it might appear that your child is just passively sitting there or that he or she is showing a language delay. In fact, although the child is not verbally participating or interacting with others, or rarely does so, she or he is actually absorbing the structures and vocabulary of the second language. Learning is definitely happening and their brain is certainly working hard!

This stage of second language learning is also called the pre-production stage. The silent period is a crucial time that must happen before a child can speak another language; our brain must learn to process things before we can speak. The length of the silent period varies from child to child, depending on different factors like personality, culture background, support received, etc. But, no worries! Your child will speak when he or she is ready! Studies show that the secret to a child learning a second language is the frequency in which that child is exposed to the new language.

Do not worry, there is help! Here are some activities to help during the silent period:

Repetition and Labeling: Talk to your child as much as possible. Describe what you are doing throughout the day. Label and emphasize main objects and/or actions in both languages. For instance, if you are teaching your child Spanish, you might say “Oh, you want the blue car, el carro azul, the blue car”.

Singing and Reading in Both Languages: Sing simple songs and fingerplays in both languages. Do the same actions for both. For example, “The Itsy, Bitsy Spider” or “Happy Birthday to You!” have versions in other languages. When reading, point at simple pictures and label them in both languages. You may also find a variation of bilingual books at your local library.

Modeling During Play: Play pretend with another family member like waiving and saying “Hi” in both languages, or eating different items as you name them in both languages. Use exclamation in your voice and include different sounds and expressions used in the two languages. For example, in Portuguese, you may say, “Mmmm, yummy”, “Que gostoso!”

Support Your Home Language: If you live in the United States and your home language is something other than English, focus on using mostly your home language. This is an important concept since your child will have plenty of opportunities to be exposed to the English language (school, friends, TV, etc.)

Helping bilingual children go through the silent period can be an arduous task. However, with the proper support and strategies, it will become an easier thing—part of your daily life. Have fun with it! Enjoy those magical learning moments with your little ones. Then, learning a second language can be a rewarding experience.


By Virginia Di Stefano, Child Development Specialist at Kids Who Count

Resource: The ESL Nexus “Integrating Language and Context for Academic Success”




Holly BushnellHow to Help a Bilingual Child Going Through the “Silent Period”


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  • Kim Silverman - September 3, 2021 reply

    I have an ESL student in first grade who is not talking. She did not talk in Kindergarten. I am afraid she is going to suffer horrible social consequences if she does not start talking. She understands most everything. Especially when she reads. I needs some exercises to help her feel comfortable enough to talk. I am her teacher for one hour a day. What can I do to help her?

    admin - September 3, 2021 reply

    Hi Kim, Have you spoke to the school district and her parents about getting her some speech therapy?

  • Brankica - November 10, 2021 reply

    Dear Virginia, we are having a 4 years old son which is being raised multilingual. Croatian (mom), Dutch (dad) and he was born and went to kindergarten in Germany (German). Until April this year he was speaking with everybody all 3 languages without problem. Then we went for a longer period (2 months) to Croatia. After we came back to Germany he stopped speaking in Kindergarten, to all our friends. Since July he is just speaking with us at home, his grandparents and that’s it. He is very friendly and likes to play with other kids, but does not speak to them. For us is difficult to different is it silent period or selective mutism. And we do not know how to help him and encourage him to speak to other people. Would appreciate your advice, as we are new in this thing and really want to help to our child. Thank you

    Holly Bushnell - November 22, 2021 reply

    Hello Brankica- Have you had him seen by a speech therapist? A speech therapist should be able to diagnose the problem and help your child progress. Best of luck.
    Kids Who Count

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