"My child is learning two different languages, does that mean he/she will fall behind his/her peers in school and have speech and language issues?"
I wish I could give you a straight-forward “yes” or “no” answer, but the truth is, I cannot. I can speak to you as a clinician who has seen many families who speak two different languages (e.g., Arabic and English, Spanish and English, Hebrew and English) and can provide you with some research that has been completed about this very topic. Unfortunately, even though there have been SOME studies, they range in consistency and there really aren’t that many long-term conclusions that have been met.
One thing is for certain, recent studies have concluded that learning two languages can certainly lead to advantages for children, such as higher educational achievement, improved social use of language, and higher cognitive flexibility (being able to multitask). These benefits are most likely due to the high demand on their intellectual system as a result of managing two languages on a daily basis.
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My Experience with Bilingual Families as a Speech-Language Pathologist
I can tell you one thing for sure – most families that I provide therapy for are advised to keep their children’s language exposure to only one. This means, that if the family is using their dominant language at home only, but the child receives a second language in a different setting, (e.g., family speaks Spanish as their dominant language, but child goes to an English speaking school), then the family is forced to switch from their primary language that they are comfortable with and modelling correctly, to a language that is not easy to learn overnight. This causes confusion for the child AND the family. If that is what you are being advised to do, please do not listen and get a new therapist! Language development can be normal or abnormal REGARDLESS of how many languages the child is learning!
Bilingual children are also NOT more prone to developing a speech and language disorder. Odds are, if a child has a true language disorder, you will see the same articulation and sound errors in BOTH languages. This is why testing/evaluations should be conducted in both languages, if possible. If this cannot occur, the parent should be included in the room in case the examiner has any questions about vocabulary. If therapy is provided in both languages, it leads to quicker progress and increased carryover to the second language.
I’ve also seen at the private practice that bilingual children, although at a slower rate, will show progress and will be able to develop normal speech and language skills with the help of therapy. Another thing to remember, every child is different. Although they all have the ability to learn vocabulary in multiple languages, if there are cognitive and learning disabilities, they may develop slower than other children.
D.G.’s Story: Working with a Bilingual Child on Speech Development
I work full-time in a school district and part-time at a private practice. Both settings give me access to bilingual students (mainly Arabic and Spanish speaking).
One of the first little boys that I saw was a 6 year old boy “D.G.” whose parents spoke Arabic at home. It is important to mention that his parents did know English, but preferred to only speak Arabic when the family was together. The little boy went to an English speaking only school. He was brought in for an evaluation because the staff at the school couldn’t understand him when he communicated. His parents also stated it was becoming difficult at home to comprehend his speech in English only.
When I first met “D,” I noticed that I could only understand about 10% of what he was saying. This is extremely low for a child that is 6 years of age. He also seemed to have extreme difficulty paying attention to anything for more than 3-5 minutes. I cannot speak Arabic and as part of my evaluation, I wanted to see what he was producing in both languages. His parents came into the room and I asked him to produce simple words like “dog” in both languages. According to his parents, the words in Arabic that were previously spoken clearly, were distorted; they were also distorted in English, however, the English words were coming out clearer than the Arabic words.
While working with “D,” it was determined that the reason his English was improving (although unclear) and his Arabic was declining was because he was hearing English for more hours in the day as compared to the amount of time he was hearing Arabic. I told the parents to begin supplementing all Arabic communication with English. For example, if he requested “milk” in English, he should be given the word in Arabic and visa versa. After 1 year of therapy (2 times per week), he was noticed to make significant improvement in both languages. So much so, that his intelligibility was at 75-85% in therapy.
“D’s” progress in therapy was also due to his parents being very involved and inquisitive about their roles. They constantly asked for handouts, suggestions and gave me feedback from “D’s” teachers. That will be key in your child’s success, as well.
A Study’s Perspective
A study was completed by Barbara Zurer Pearson (University of Miami) and Sylvia C. Fernandez (University of Maryland) in 2001, which looked at the patterns of vocabulary growth in bilingual infants and toddlers. They took 20 children from birth and followed them over a period of 2 years to see what their language development looked like. The study was very long and very involved, but they concluded several different things:
- Language development in two languages for one individual can be quite different, but have some similarities. What does that mean? Basically, every child is different, but bilingual children, in general, learned slightly slower in regards to vocabulary.
- Children who learned two languages from two different people, in two different settings were more successful in learning language. If you and your spouse are fluent in two languages, the child should be exposed to both of those languages. If there is a person at their school or daycare that is bilingual, try and have that person talk to your child when they are away from you.
The take-away? Bilingual children are not behind in their speech development compared to monolingual children; they are just learning at a slower rate.
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