Dr Susanne Dopke
Speech and Language Pathology
Bilingualism and Difficulties with Language Development?
reprint from the ""
Volume 1 Issue 4.
Time and again, parents who are talking a language other than English with their child at home report that they have been advised by professionals to only speak English because the child stutters, has difficulty processing language he hears, is slow to start speaking, or has other language symptoms associated with developmental difficulties such as difficulties with literacy or academic progress at school. What can parents make of this advice?
The reality of the situation is that we have no research evidence on how bilingualism affects the language development of children with language-related developmental delays. By the same token we do not have any research evidence that stopping one of the languages improves the child's abilities in the other language.
We do have evidence, however, that bilingualism DOES NOT CAUSE any difficulties with language development. We know that because bilingual children do not have such problems any more frequently than do monolingual children.
However, there is evidence that some 10% of children have difficulties with speech or language and need professional help. Bilingual children are not exempted from this.
If bilingualism does not cause language-related developmental problems (nor any other developmental problems, for that matter), then stopping one of the languages is not going to fix the problem. Developmental difficulties need to be properly diagnosed as to their likely cause, and intervention needs to target that cause.
Language development is very much a matter of extracting rules. These include rules of form for the grammar and sound structure, rules of motor movements for the sound production, and rules of meaning for how to use words and sentences. For children who have difficulties with any of these levels the rules need to be made more explicit.
Interestingly, languages differ on how much difficulties similar rules may cause the young child. For example, subjectverb agreement as in 'I go he goes' is relatively difficult in English, since it only happens on one person and only in present tense In contrast, in Italian every person has a different ending and frequency and predictability facilitate this to develop at a much earlier age. So why would dropping Italian improve the child's ability with subjectverb agreement in English?
There is research evidence coming out of the Netherlands that stopping the home language often has the opposite effect to that intended: Parents who stop the home language, may talk less with their child! This is not surprising to anyone who has tried speaking a language they are not as familiar or confident with. People who have never learned a second language might not be able to conceptualise this. While their advice of "the more English the better" is well intentioned, it does not actually work like that. It is not the more English that is the better, but the richer the language input -- the better!
When parents follow the easily dished out advice to only talk English with their child, they may quickly find themselves in a situation where the child loses the ability to speak the home language, but no gains may be made in the area of the developmental problem.
If a child appears to have a developmental problem, it is important to see a specialist for a pro-per diagnosis and proper management of the disorder. Increasing numbers of professionals understand the importance of the home language for many Australian families and are confident that they can help families with bilingual children without advising against the use of their family language.
For more information on speech pathology treatment for bilingual children