This is an extended version of an answer I gave to parents who asked me for advice about their 7 yo boy turning silent.
One or the biggest myths about bilingual children is that they are all like sponges and that they become fluent in no time…
Fact is, that during language aquisition, children go through different stages: Pre-production, Early Production, Speech Emergent, Beginning Fluency, Intermediate Fluency, Advanced Fluency.
When a child turns silent there is usually some reason. It can be one that seems minor to parents but is major for the child. – Maybe your child went through a major change during the last few months? Or anything else happened like: you moved country, or your child is attending daycare or school in another language? What is important for any parent, teacher, speechtherapist etc. needs to know if the child stoped talking both (or all) languages at the same time, and what could have triggerd this reaction.
Studies observe that the nonverbal period is typically
1) shorter than 6 months,
2) common in 3-8 year olds and
3) longer in the younger child
(cfr. Tabors PO. One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Brookes; 1997.)
During this time a child needs time to acclimatise to the new context and to begin to tune into the sounds of all languages involved. He may start rehearsing the language(s) silently to himself and practice “private speech”. You would notice this when he plays by himself and lets toys talk. – He is probably processing the language internally and building up confidence to try out the language before “going public” again.
What you, your partner and everyone interacting with the child can do, is to reassure and encourage him by making him feel accepted member of the group/family/society.
I know that the pressure from society, family, friends, teachers (?) can be very hard on you and your child, but I really suggest that you entirely focus on his needs now. Let your child decide when he wants to interact with you.
Here are some suggestions about what you can do:
1. Continue talking even when your child does not respond verbally.
2. Try to include you child in small groups (1-2) with other children who speak the same language.
3. Use varied questions, especially open questions, where your child can’t only nodd or shake his head.
4. Include other children as the focus in the conversation.
5. Use the first language.
6. Accept non-verbal responses.
7. Praise minimal efforts, but not in an exaggerated way. If he says something or tries to say something, you can praise with a smile or by repeating what he said. This will comfort him.
8. You can try to sing more songs with him. Through music, rythm, the body can relax and if he may try to sing the tune too.
9. The practice through role play can be beneficial. too: let him choose a puppet or a toy and try to let him talk through it.
If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.