Should children with language and/or developmental disorders be exposed to learning multiple languages?
As a speech-language pathologist, I get asked this question often. I always encourage my client’s parents to continue to expose their child to their family’s native language as well as English. Children’s brains are hardwired to learn a language. My response to this question is always: “I want your child to be bilingual and literate in your family’s native language as well as English. This way your child can communicate to your family members, who may not know English, and be more employable when your child is older (thus making more money!)” Not only are you empowering your child to maintain communication with family members perhaps across the country or world, but you are also setting them up for success in the future.
But what does the research say?
Good question! Below, I have listed evidenced-based research to support the idea of promoting bilingualism, even with children with language and developmental disorders. I have also included a glossary, which you may find helpful.
- Bilingual: speaking two languages fluently.
- Monolingual: speaking only one language.
- L1: the first learned language.
- L2: the second learned language.
- Simultaneous bilinguals: children who acquire two languages before the age of three
- Sequential bilinguals: children who learn a second language after the first language is well-established (generally after the age of three)
- Dual language learners (DLLs): young children who are being taught in a language other than their primary language.
- English language learner (ELL): young children whose first language is not English and are learning English for the first time.
Méndez et al. tested whether a bilingual vocabulary instructional approach or an English-only approach would better improve the English vocabularies of preschool-aged Spanish-English DLLs.
- “…bilingual vocabulary instruction does not seem to impede the development of L2 vocabulary abilities but instead may support both L2 and L1 vocabulary abilities more effectively than L2-only instruction” (Méndez et al. 2018).
The Journal of Communication Disorders is publishing an issue that offers a look into research studies, including different countries and research teams.
- “Bilingualism is the norm rather than the exception globally; children with DD (developmental disabilities) should have opportunities to become bilingual and participate in a multilingual world as do their peers with typical development” (Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2016).
- Researchers discovered that children with developmental disabilities, such as Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Down Syndrome (DS), and Autism Spectrum Disorders (DS) are capable of becoming bilinguals, whether exposed as simultaneous or sequential bilinguals (Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2016).
Dr. Fred Genesee (2009), a researcher in the area of bilingualism, reports:
- “Evidence on children with specific language impairment, admittedly rather limited at this time, suggests that…these children can acquire functional competence in two languages at the same time, within the limits of their impairment. Therefore, children with specific language impairment living in families where knowing two, or more, languages are useful and important, should be given every opportunity to acquire two languages” (13, p.14-15).
- “bilingual children need continuous and regular exposure to both languages to ensure their complete acquisition” (13, p.15).
What can I do to support both languages at home?
American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) offers tips on how to best support your child in learning two languages.
- Choose to use two languages from the start or use only one language at home. Your child will learn the second language at school.
- Give your child many chances to hear and practice both languages during the day.
- Use books, music, and tv/videos to expose your child to both languages. Use phone calls/video chats to speak to family members who speak your home language.
- Talk to your child in the language that you know best. You will serve as a good language model if you’re speaking the language you are most comfortable with.
Children all over the world learn multiple languages at the same time. There may be a silent period in one language while your child learns another language. There may also be confusion between both languages. Support your child in the best way you know how and consult with your speech-language pathologist to see how you can best support both languages. Refer to the sources below for more details of evidenced-based research to support bilingualism in children – even with language and developmental disorders.
Elena Freeman, MEd, CCC-SLP
- Genesee, F. (2009). Early Childhood Bilingualism: Perils and Possibilities. Journal of Applied Research in Learning, 2 (Special Issue), 2, 1-21.
- Kay-Raining Bird, E., Trudeau, N., Sutton, A. (2016). Pulling it all together: the road to lasting bilingualism for children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Communication Disorders. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2016.07.005.
- Méndez, L. I., Crais, E. R., & Kainz, K. (2018). The impact of individual differences on a bilingual vocabulary approach for Latino preschoolers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61, 897-909. doi:10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-17-0186.
- Hanen.org: Can children with language impairments learn two languages?
- ASHA: Learning Two Languages
- Informed SLP: Bilingual or English Only: How to Teach Vocabulary to Dual Language Learners
- Bilingualism in Kids With Disabilities