Parents

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.
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FAQs (and some answers):
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 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7.a Which language should I use with my child if the language spoken in the school is different from the one spoken at home and he shows difficulties in both languages? Should we drop the home language and use only one language? What would happen if we, the parents, drop the home language, but the grandparents continue to use it with the child?

7.b Our five-year-old is bilingual and has been diagnosed with specific language impairment. We have been advised to speak only one language to him at home — the language of school. This will be difficult, since his older sister and brother speak two languages and we are a bilingual family. Should we follow this advice?

It is unfortunate that this kind of advice is so commonly given to parents of bilingual children with language delays, language impairment, and other language or learning disabilities, including reading problems. This advice comes from a widely held belief 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 beliefs. 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, or children with autism becoming bilingual, and of children with specific language impairment or dyslexia becoming bilingual speakers and readers. In fact, the children described above in question (6) are evidence of this because they already speak two languages, even though they have language-learning difficulties.

 

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 bilingually 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 a child monolingual in this environment. Not to mention how that child would miss out on the full dual identity other family and community members enjoy, or on the opportunity to 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 change 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.

 

That being said, the child himself might prefer one language over the other language, and consequently develop more proficiency in one versus the other. However, we have no evidence that bilingual children with specific language impairment are more likely to do this than bilingual children with normal language development.

8. We planned for our son to attend an immersion school where he can learn through a second language — different from the language we speak at home — and grow up bilingually. But our son has been diagnosed with specific language impairment. Does this mean he is not a good candidate for immersion education?

There is scant research evidence on how well children with specific language impairment do in immersion schooling, where children learn their content subjects through a 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.

9. My daughter is fluent in her home language but finds it difficult to acquire the school language. Could there be a delay (impairment) in the second language only?

Language delay and specific language impairment are developmental disorders. This means that they originate with the children and are a consequence of some disruptions in early neurodevelopment, and the propensity for them can be inherited. One difference between language delay and specific language impairment is that many children with early language delay resolve and normalize by school entry, while children affected with specific language impairment start out with language delay, but continue to have difficulties in oral language into the school age years.

 

Language learning, whether for a first or second language, would be affected by a developmental language disorder. It is not possible for a bilingual with specific language impairment to have symptoms in one language and not another.

 

However, all bilinguals, with normal or impaired language, can have one language that is more proficient than the other, but this should not be mistaken for some kind of “selective” language impairment. If your child seems to be experiencing difficulties in learning in his/her second language, this most likely has an environmental cause. If the school language is not the community language, and the child’s only contact with that language is at school, it can take them at least one to two years to show real fluency in that language. Alternatively, if child is learning the community language at school alongside peers who are monolingual in that language, the child may appear to have difficulties because he/she is being compared unfairly to monolinguals.

 

It can take about 3-5 years in school for bilingual children to have similar oral language proficiency as monolinguals in the school language. Other potential factors causing difficulties in learning the school language could be lack of motivation, academic problems, or whether the child is inherently a “talented” language learner. But impairment in the second language only is not a possible explanation.

10. When can specific language impairment be diagnosed in sequential bilinguals? How long should they be exposed to the second language?

(Please also see the answer to question 8.) It can take 3-5 years in school for children to have oral language proficiency in their second language on a par with their monolingual peers, and it can take 5-7 years for them to have academic language skills, including reading and writing, on a par with their monolingual peers. Because it takes such a long time for these children to have full proficiency in the second language, this raises issues for early and effective identification of children with specific language impairment.

 

If clinicians wait until second language children have had adequate exposure, they will under-identify children with specific language impairment at the ages when they are in need of therapy. After all, the earlier the identification, the earlier therapy can be given. The opposite problem is “over-identification”, where too many normal second language children are mistaken as having specific language impairment because of their incomplete second language abilities.

 

There are some strategies for assessment that can be employed to avoid the problems of under- and over-identification. First, since language impairment always manifests in both languages of a bilingual, obtaining information on a child’s first language history and current abilities, either through direct observation or through parent report, would be important. The child should show signs of language delay and impairment in their first language. Second, when interpreting evaluations of the child’s performance in the second language, use other bilingual children as the comparison group, and not monolinguals, unless the child has had between 3-5 years of full time exposure in school to that language.

 

Both of these strategies would lead to more accurate diagnoses, but we need to emphasize that until complete bilingual norms, categorized according to exposure time to that language, are available for tests used with these children, identification of sequential bilingual children with specific language impairment is always going to be less accurate than with monolingual children.

11. 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]

 

The Canadian Language and Literacy Encyclopedia