Clinicians and educators
These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and their answers were prepared by Johanne Paradis (University of Alberta) in collaboration with several members of COST Action IS0804.
Translations to other languages are available below. Just click on your language.
If you want to contribute a new language please contact us.
FAQs (and some answers):
The term “clinicians” is broadly construed to include healthcare practitioners like pediatricians, child psychologists, as well as speech and language pathologists (or speech and language therapists).
1. We are raising our child bilingually at home, but we are worried that may cause a delay in her language development. We would like to know if a bilingual child is necessarily going to be delayed. In other words, is delay normal in bilinguals?
There is a great deal of evidence that infants and young children can learn two languages very successfully. The early milestones of language development happen at the same time for children who learn one language or two. For example, they babble the same way as monolingual infants, they produce their first words around their first birthday (the typical range is roughly 10-14 months), and begin to combine words into two- or three-word “sentences” around two years of age (the typical range is roughly 18-26 months).
As bilingual children grow older, there are some differences between their language use and growth when compared to monolingual children, but these differences are completely normal. They should not be a cause for concern or considered a risk factor for language delays and disorders. For example, bilingual children may mix their two languages together in one sentence (see question 4 in the FAQ for parents), and they may be more proficient in one of their languages than the other in terms of their vocabulary and grammar. The language they are more proficient in is usually the language they speak and hear the most. Given enough time and exposure, they will catch up in their less proficient language.
In the preschool and early school-age years, bilingual children often have smaller vocabularies in each language than monolinguals, but if their two vocabularies are combined, and all the words that are translation equivalents removed, bilinguals have similar or larger vocabularies than monolinguals their own age. Over time in school, bilinguals often, but not always, close the vocabulary gap with monolinguals, in at least one of their languages.
Bilingual children in the older preschool and early school age years may take a little longer than monolinguals to perfect the finer points of their languages. For example, in English, the past tense includes numerous irregular verbs, dig – dug, sing – sang, catch – caught, as well as verbs that take “-ed” for the past tense, talk – talked, help – helped. When English is one language of a bilingual child, that child might make more errors with the irregular verbs than monolingual English-speaking children the same age by saying “digged” instead of “dug” or “catched” instead of “caught”. Again, with time and sufficient exposure to English, particularly written English in school, bilingual children will eventually perfect these finer points of the language.
2. What should I recommended to the parents of a bilingual child diagnosed with SLI about language use at home and in school? I think I should advise them to drop one of the two languages, so their child can concentrate his efforts on just one language. Is this the best advice?
It is unfortunate that this kind of advice, however well-intentioned, is so commonly given to parents of bilingual children with language delays, language impairment, and other language or learning disabilities, including reading problems. As mentioned in the question, this advice comes from a widely-held common-sense notion that learning two languages is beyond the capacity of children affected with language or language-related learning disorders, and continued use of two languages will exacerbate their problems. In our experience, many healthcare practitioners and educators believe that eliminating one of the two languages is an essential part of the “therapy” bilingual children with language disorders need. It is important for us to state clearly and directly that there is no research evidence to support these common-sense notions. On the contrary, children with language disorders can and do become bilingual. There are numerous documented cases of children with severe intellectual disabilities, like Down Syndrome, who have become bilingual, of children with autism becoming bilingual, and children with specific language impairment or dyslexia becoming bilingual speakers and readers. Bilingual children with specific language impairment will learn both their languages more slowly than monolinguals, and their ultimate abilities in both languages will have some limitations, but importantly, the limitations tend to be similar to monolinguals affected with specific language impairment. In other words, growing up bilingual does not make specific language impairment worse. Another consideration is the family and community context. If the family is already bilingual, and perhaps the community as well, it would be difficult to make one child in this milieu monolingual. Not to mention how that child would miss out on the full dual identity other family and community members enjoy, or on the opportunity have a close relationship with their grandparents, which could lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy. In the case of children whose language learning difficulties stem from developmental disorders like Down Syndrome and autism, it is even more important that they learn both the language of the healthcare and education systems, and the language of their parents since their parents are likely to be their primary caregivers and social-linguistic interlocutors for a long time. Therefore, there is no good reason to suggest changing the use of language in the home from two to one for a child who has specific language impairment or other language or learning disorders.
3. What should I recommended to the parents of a child diagnosed with SLI about school choices? If the parents want to send their child to bilingual or immersion school, should I discourage them for doing this on the grounds that their child might do poorly academically if he has to learn through another language?
There is scant research evidence on how well children with specific language impairment do in bilingual or immersion schooling – where children learn their content subjects entirely or partially through their second language, a different language from the one spoken at home. But, existing research found that English-speaking children with language delays in French immersion schools in Canada had academic achievements similar to English-speaking children with delays in English-only schools. Therefore, learning through a second language did not diminish the academic success of the affected children; however children affected with language delays/disorders do not tend to excel academically. What about children’s language development when they are in immersion schooling? We know less about this, but there is research on children with specific language impairment who go to school in their second language because they are from immigrant families, and so education in the second language is not a choice for parents to make. This research shows that they develop fluency in the second language, although they show limitations in their abilities in the second language as a consequence of having specific language impairment. These children are also not more at risk for losing their first language than other immigrant children. It is important to recognize that whether bilingualism is a necessity or a choice could make a difference. In the case of your son, bilingualism is a choice, and as such, demands a certain commitment from the parents and the child. It also demands a commitment from the school to provide any language and academic supports your child might need to succeed. Therefore, even though there is no evidence that a child with specific language impairment cannot learn a second language through school, parents need to ask whether all parties concerned have the interest, motivation, time, and resources to enable the child to succeed in this kind of educational environment.
4. Which language should be used in therapy? The dominant language? The society language? Both?
The short answer to this question is that giving therapy in both languages is widely-considered to be the best practice. Because bilingual children with language impairment show weakness in both their languages, both their languages can benefit from the focused practice provided in therapy. However, for a variety of reasons, dual language therapy might not be feasible, e.g., the therapists doesn’t speak one of the child’s languages, or the therapist is giving therapy in a school where only one language is viewed as appropriate for therapy. If therapy is only given in one language which one should be chosen? It is likely that the therapist speaks the societal language, and if this is not the bilingual child’s dominant language, this mismatch is unfortunate, and therapy could be more limiting for the child, but it is still beneficial for the child to go ahead with the therapy. The child’s proficiency in the societal language is only likely to grow with time, and the necessity to gain as much proficiency as possible in this language is clear. If the language of the therapy is in the child’s dominant language, so much the better. Single language therapy might have more benefits than it seems on the surface. This is because bilingual children can transfer or share some of their language learning skills, like phonological awareness and verbal working memory, conceptual knowledge, and metacognitive strategies between their languages. Thus, developing these skills in one language, could also help develop them in the other. However, there is less evidence to date that very language-specific aspects of the lexical and morpho-syntactic inventories are so closely interconnected between the languages that very specific target in therapy would automatically be shared with the other language.
5. Are there books and you can recommend?
Genesee, F., Paradis, J. & Crago, M. (2004). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes. [the 2nd edition will appear in 2011]
Goldstein, B. (Ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers (pp. 259-286). Baltimore: Brookes.
Roseberry-McKibbin, C. (2002). Multicultural students with special language needs. Oceanside, CA: Academic Communication Associates.