Bilingual Children with Disabilities
Working with families who are bilingual or multilingual is one of my passions. So imagine my excitement when an email landed in my inbox with the subject heading “Bilingual Children with Disabilities”! The email was an alert to a special issue of an international research journal on the topic of bilingualism. I want to share my excitement and unpack what we know about some of the tricky questions on this topic.
- Does my child have a language delay because we speak more than one language at home, or because we don’t speak English at home?
- Should children who have disabilities, including language impairments, only learn one language?
- Will exposure to two (or more) languages, slow down a child’s language development or increase their risk of language impairments?
- Will my child be confused by hearing more than one language?
These are questions I get asked often. They often also bring up a lot of emotion, both for me, and for the worried, overwhelmed or guilty feeling parents who are asking them. In many ways, these questions get to the heart of why I am a speech pathologist, and why I work with children.
The Short Answer
The short answer to all of these slightly different versions of the same basic question is NO. I’m delighted to say that based on current research evidence and my clinical experience, exposure to more than one language will not disadvantage a child with a disability. In fact, there is more evidence that it will be beneficial for them.
Exposure to two languages does not increase risk for language impairment
Children who speak only one language and those who speak more than one language have about the same rates of language impairment (difficulty learning or understanding language). They also make similar kinds of errors, whether they are speaking only one language, or more than one language. Children who are learning more than one language do not have more severe language impairments than those only learning one language.
This means that it is not hearing or speaking a different language at home to what is spoken in the community that causes children to have difficulty learning language. Parents should not feel guilty that they are speaking their own language at home with their children.
Unfortunately, there are still many people, including some doctors, teachers, or even speech pathologists, who do not know this. They think that children learning more than one language are slower to learn to speak, or that they are confused by hearing more than one language. This article might help them understand this idea is wrong.
Advantages of bilingualism
Many recent studies have shown that there are advantages of learning more than one language in early childhood. Some of the benefits include: being able to understand different points of view more easily, having more control over attention, having better working memory, and noticing more social details. Elizabeth Peña suggests that these advantages can actually help a child overcome the challenges of having a language impairment.
Children who are learning more than one language also often have exposure to more people from differing cultures. They learn different ways to interact socially, have access to different ideas. For children with disabilities, this might mean that they have more opportunities to hear good language models, because they will hear people who speak their home language well, as well as those who speak other languages well. If families try to stop speaking their home language in favour of another language (such as English), a child with disabilities might have fewer opportunities to practise speaking. Maybe they will miss out on great stories from their grandparents, or not have the chance to join in special cultural occasions. Being bilingual reduces the chances of them missing out on social opportunities as well as language opportunities.
Talk to your children in the language you know best. Research is confirming that this will give your child the best opportunities for learning language, even if they have a disability or a language impairment.