Due to increased mobility and migration, the number of children growing up in multilingual settings in Europe has increased substantially over the past decades. Some of these multilingual children are slow in their language development and need appropriate educational support or clinical intervention. Correct and early assessment is vital here, as undiagnosed or untreated language impairment often leads to dyslexia and learning difficulties in school. Yet for most countries and language combinations, our knowledge base for the assessment of young multilingual children’s language competencies is poor. Many tools available today are inappropriate as they are based on results from monolingual children. But what can we expect of a ‘typically developing’ bilingual or trilingual child at a certain age? Which language tests or assessment tools should be used, and what exactly should be assessed? These questions are not only asked by researchers, but by practitioners in the education and child healthcare sectors, such as preschool staff, teachers, paediatric nurses, and speech-language pathologists and therapists (SLPs).

In this talk, Ute Bohnacker pinpoints some of the challenges for linguistic research on multilingualism and language impairment in 4–7-year-old children, as well as recent international developments. Homing in on the situation in Sweden, she reports on an ongoing research project at Uppsala University (BiLI-TAS, 2014-2019), involving multilingual preschoolers and first-graders with three different language combinations: Turkish/Swedish, German/Swedish and Arabic/Swedish. All three are sizeable immigrant groups in Sweden, yet next to nothing is known about their language acquisition. The project investigates the children’s oral development in their home language (Turkish, German, or Arabic) and in the majority language (Swedish) in relation to age, exposure, and certain background factors. The project targets comprehension and production of vocabulary, narrative ability (picture-based fictional story telling and story comprehension), and phonological processing (nonword repetition). Employing new methods and materials from the European COST Action IS0804 (on bilingualism and language impairment), linguists and SLPs on the project study the core linguistic features of ‘typically developing’ bilingual children age 4–7. These data are then compared to a clinical group, in order to identify warning signs for language impairment in Swedish, Turkish, and Arabic. As the project now enters its final year, work is still in progress. The talk sketches methods and set-up and provides first results concerning vocabulary and narratives for the German/Swedish and Turkish/Swedish groups, where data collection and analysis has come furthest.


Ute Bohnacker is Reader in Scandinavian Languages and Professor of Linguistics at Uppsala University. Her research expertise is mainly in first and second language acquisition, bilingualism, narrative, grammar, and discourse, with a special interest in the Germanic languages. Her recent work has expanded towards language assessment and impaired populations and examines typical and atypical multilingual child language development in a Swedish context.