Despite significant advances in the fields of education and speech pathology, many harmful myths pertaining to multilingualism continue to persist. One particularly infuriating and patently incorrect recommendation to parents is the advice to stop speaking the birth language with their bilingual children with language disorders.
There is a plethora of evidence available regarding how bilingualism facilitates, increases, and improves language gains in children with developmental language disorders (DLD) as well as genetic conditions and syndromes (e.g., ASD, DS, FXS, etc.) Numerous researchers have released results of studies indicating the advantages of being bilingual for language impaired children (see this issue of Journal of Communication Disorders for starters for some studies on this subject).
But today in addition to briefly reiterating these advantages, I’d like to also explicitly discuss the disadvantages, which can result when parents are told to stop speaking the birth language with their language impaired children and switch to English-only interactions.
Cognitive advantages of maintaining the birth language for bilingual children with language impairments (whose parents are able to provide them with that opportunity in the home) include increased attentional control and working memory, as well as perspective taking abilities. Linguistic advantages include increased awareness of vocabulary and grammar. Even social skills of these children have been reported to be more advanced as compared to monolingual only peers (See Pena, 2016, pp. 88-89 for a review of pertinent studies)
But what happens when parents decide to speak English only to their language impaired bilingual child? In the words of Helen Lester’s ‘Pookins’, lots! And I don’t mean it in a good way!
Research indicates that children with language disorders will have language deficits in all the languages that they speak. As such, no matter which language is being used, the child will still present with some difficulty acquiring it and will do so at a much slower pace (Kohnert, 2010).
The problem is that NOT using the native language, can limit language and early literacy practices at home during sensitive periods of language acquisition. This will result in poorer language outcomes as compared to bilingual language impaired peers whose birth language continued to be supported at home. (Ijalba, 2010)
“There is also evidence to show that young minority L1 learners with impaired language systems are even more vulnerable than unaffected bilingual peers to loss or early plateaus in the home language if it is not supported (Hakansson, Salameh, & Nettelbladt, 2003; Restrepo & Kruth, 2001; Salameh, Hakansson, & Nettelbladt, 2004).” (Kohnert, 2010, p. 8)
“Minority-language families are especially affected since English is usually recommended as the target language.” (Yu, 2016, p. 424) Some studies have reported that: “parents expressed personal loss and sadness (Fernandez y Garcia et al., 2012) if they chose to speak only English to their child with ASD.” Other studies have reported that “some [parents] also expressed discomfort and difficulty when speaking a non-native language with their child (Yu, 2013) or said they talked less frequently to their child when they used the majority language because it felt less natural.” (Bird, Genesee, Verhoeven, 2016. p. 5)
Perhaps the most disturbing findings are the studies that show that eliminating speaking birth language at home causes an emotional disconnect between immediate and extended family members and the child in question (Kouritzin, 1999; Tseng & Fuligni, 2000; Wharton et al 2000). Wharton and colleagues found that immigrant parents were more affective and engaging with their autistic children when they used their native language Wharton et al (2000). Contrastingly, Kremer-Sadlik (2005) found that parents are less likely to engage their children in conversation when they cannot use their native language and that it further isolates a child who needs help with interactive skills.
“The advice to stick with a language that the family doesn’t speak well only intensifies the alienation experienced by these children.” “You’re taking a child who is already socially isolated and you’re making them even more isolated”. Consequently, “development of heritage languages and bilingual competencies may be especially important for children with ASD given their core challenges in socialization, communication, and relational development.” (Yu, 2016, p. 434)
Given the combined results of the above studies, it is hugely important for professionals to appropriately support the parents of bilingual children with language and learning needs when it comes to offering them relevant recommendations on the topic of language use in the home. This can be accomplished by sharing with them the synthesis of currently available studies on the topic of bilingualism and language disorders, as well as encouraging them to speak the birth language in the home if they are willing and able to, rather than embracing English only practices, which may result in significant detrimental effects for both bilingual children and their families.
FOR A PDF HANDOUT FOR PARENTS AND PROFESSIONALS PLEASE CLICK HERE
Select Parent-Friendly Resources:
- Myth vs. Fact: Bilingual Language Development (The Hola Blog)
- For children with autism, multiple languages may be a boon (Spectrum Magazine)
- Family Resources (Colorin Colorado)
- Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs (An interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird in Psychology Today)
- Fernandez y Garcia, E., Brelau, J., Hansen, R., & Miller, E. (2012). Unintended consequences: An ethnographic narrative case series exploring language recommendations for bilingual families of children with autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology, 20, 10–16.
- Hakansson G, Salameh E, Nettelbladt U. (2003) Measuring language development in bilingual children: Swedish-Arabic children with and without language impairment. Linguistics. 41:255–288.
- Ijalba, E (2010) Supporting early-literacy and language acquisition among bilingual children in HeadStart ASHA Convention Handout: Philadelphia, PA.
- Kay-Raining Bird, E, Genesee, F & Verhoeven, L (2016) Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: A narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders, (63), pp. 1-14.
- Kohnert, K. (2010). Bilingual children with primary language impairment: Issues, evidence and implications for clinical actions. Journal of Communication Disorders, 43, 465–473.
- Kouritzin, S (1999) Face[t]s of First Language Loss. Routledge.
- Kremer-Sadlik, T. (2005). To be or not to be bilingual: Autistic children from multilingual families. Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, ed. James Cohen, Kara T. McAlister, Kellie Rolstad, and Jeff MacSwan, 1225-1234.
- Peña, E (2016) Supporting the home language of bilingual children with developmental disabilities: From knowing to doing. Journal of Communication Disorders, (63), pp. 85-92.
- Restrepo MA, Kruth K. (2001) Grammatical characteristics of a Spanish-English bilingual child with specific language impairment. Communication Disorders Quarterly. 21:66–76.
- Salameh E, Hakansson G, Nettelbladt U. (2004) Developmental perspectives on bilingual Swedish-Arabic children with and without language impairment: A longitudinal study. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. 39:65–91
- Tseng, Vivian. & Fuligni, Andrew J.(2000). Parent-adolescent language use and relationships among immigrant families with east Asian, Filipino and Latin American background. Journal of Marriage & Family, Vol. 62, No. 2,
- Wharton, R et al. (2000). Children with special need in bilingual families: A developmental approach to language recommendations. ICDL Clinical Practice Guidelines. The Unicorn Children’s Foundation: ICDL Press, Ch. 7. Pp 141-151.
- Yu, B. (2013). Issues in bilingualism and heritage language maintenance: Perspectives of minority-language mothers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 22, 10–24.
- Yu, B. (2016). Bilingualism as conceptualized and bilingualism as lived: A critical examination of the monolingual socialization of a child with autism in a bilingual family. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 424-435.
For more information on Evidence-Based Practices in Speech-Language Pathologists, SLPs can check out SLPs for Evidence-Based Practice
For more Smart Speech LLC bilingual resources and topics click HERE