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SLP Corner: Can Everybody Be Bilingual?


By: Lucy Windevoxhel, M.S., CCC-SLP
Can everybody be bilingual? Lately a new article researching bilingualism pops up almost every single week. It seems that there is a growing awareness of the importance and advantages of being bilingual for the general population. In many parts of the world this is a non-issue. Children in other countries grow up speaking more than one language because they live in a bilingual or multilingual community. However, the United States tends to be monolingual. Hopefully, as parents become more aware of the benefits of being bilingual this will change.
Nevertheless, for our population of children with special needs many questions still remain. Can they be bilingual? Should they be bilingual? Will being exposed to more than one language further delay their development?
Well, what does some of the research say? In 1999 an article published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology reviewed the research on monolingual vs. bilingual intervention for bilingual students. The author concluded that “..children who are learning two languages may benefit from a bilingual approach to intervention..” (Gutierrez – Clellen, 1999).  A 2005 small study of the language abilities of bilingual children with Down Syndrome also indicated that they “.. found no evidence suggesting a detrimental effect of bilingualism..”.{on bilingualism or bilingual therapy} (Kay-Raining Bird, 2005). There are several studies that come to similar conclusions. The research on the bilingual development of children with language impairments is not abundant at this time, but it all points to providing children with support in all the languages they need, rather than to limit their ability to communicate in their home and community.
So as a therapist, what can you do? First you need to consider if being monolingual is even a choice. Some families are bilingual, others are not. We cannot ask a family to speak English to a child if they themselves can barely communicate in that language. Sometimes grandparents are the primary caregiver and they don’t speak English, which means that not supporting the child’s home language would in essence prevent him from communicating with his primary caregiver. Then find out what is important to the family. Sometimes parents are very apprehensive about their child being bilingual. They just want their child to talk. We can offer reassurance and advice, but if they want to drop the home language altogether and speak only in English, it is their child and their choice. On the other hand, some parents want their child to be bilingual for a variety of reasons. Again, it is their choice.
In order to gain greater insight on what families go through I asked three bilingual mothers of children with special needs their opinion and experience on the subject. Here is what they had to say:
Paula grew up in Guatemala in a bilingual family. Everyone in her home speaks both English and Spanish. She now lives in the United States. Paula’s daughter has a diagnosis of Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder.  When asked why she made the choice to teach her daughter both languages she said: “We decided to speak both languages because Spanish is part of her identity, of her culture and heritage. I grew up bilingual in Guatemala. I attended an English immersion American school and always dreamed of having children who spoke two or maybe even three languages.  I love my country, Guatemala, and wanted my children to remain tied not only to the land but to the people there. All of the professionals who suggested that we speak to her only in Spanish where not bilingual themselves and I have researched  extensively on the advantages of being bilingual and there is proof that learning two languages from an early age improves children’s language in general, as well as their attention span and many other areas.  Not that I needed convincing but to me all of this research made me believe that for my daughter learning two languages was like a therapy, like exercise for her brain to strengthen her language and communication abilities which needed strengthening.Paula also explained to me that despite her research, she did fear that being exposed to two languages would mean it would take her daughter longer to talk. I think these words from Paula struck most closely to my heart: “Speaking Spanish lets her talk with her grandparents in Spanish,  read mommy’s books from when she was little and teach her little brother new words.   Being bilingual not only makes her feel the same as everyone in the family (because we are all bilingual), she also realizes that other children in her class are not bilingual so this makes her feel special, gives her confidence  and boosts her self esteem.  She is now starting to read and has transferred her reading skills from English to Spanish, Spanish continues to be the weaker language for her but she is so proud of her accomplishments which is something invaluable for a child who struggles in so many areas.  She knows that she has to use a keyboard or computer because handwriting is so hard for her and at the same time she knows she can read and speak two languages and most of her classmates can’t, it levels the playing field for her.”
Eliana, originally from Bolivia, moved to the United States while pregnant with her first son Emir, who was born with Down Syndrome. Emir has a younger sister who also has Down Syndrome. For Eliana, speaking to her children in English was not a matter of choice. She did not speak English at the time. Her biggest fear was to delay her children’s speech even further. Regarding the advice she received from a professional Eliana explained: “It´s usual to receive information about the importance of raising them monolingual because of the speech delay, many times I heard to the therapist telling me that they were not advancing because of the confusion of receiving therapies in English and living in a second language environment. Of course I felt sad many times and also confused, and I am still asking myself sometimes if this decision is not hurting them instead of helping them. I know many other children with Down syndrome that are already speaking at this age because they are monolingual, but at the other side, I know they will master this stage and they will be bilingual.”  Eliana added “.. it is not easy but it´s a compromise with our culture and our future. I feel proud of them to be Latinos, and to be able to communicate in Spanish who is my 1st language and is a tool for success for any child.”
Paloma, a native Spanish speaker, has a son diagnosed with Autism. By the age of two and a half her son, who had been exposed to three languages, was only saying a few words in English. As a family they decided to focus on English. Their priority was to get him to communicate in the language that was easiest for him. When Paloma first heard of her son’s diagnosis she explains how she felt :  “I was lost, confused, frustrated. All I wanted was for my son to speak. I was scared that he wouldn’t be able to communicate and the most important thing for me was that he would grow to be independent.”. Regarding the advice given to her by professionals she says ” stick to one language and work with the language that seemed more advanced. It made sense at the time.
However I have to say that his current Speech Pathologist had a conversation with me earlier this year, saying that since he is at level with receptive language and almost at level with expressive we had to start speaking Spanish to him.  And this came from a person that does not speak Spanish.
Also, at the school they speak to him a lot in Spanish and we have noticed that he understands everything and is opening up to speak a lot more.”
As you can see, each case was different and the decision taken by each parent was individualized based on the child’s and family’s needs. Each family feels happy with the progress their child has made.
I think the answer to this dilemma is, there is no single correct answer. Research provides evidence suggesting that to support a child’s development in each language he is exposed to is beneficial.  There is no question that families should decide what they want for their children. They look to us for expert guidance and an opinion, not to dictate what they should do. So, look at each child and family. Is the child bilingual? Then they may need support in each language used.  Is the family bilingual? Is it even a choice for them to choose one language over the other? Give them the information you have. Give them access to the available research so that families feel confident in their decision. Let them know that giving their child the best language model they can provide will be beneficial to their little ones. Do not ignore those family members (e.g., grandparents) who will be unable to relate to our patient if we completely ignore their home language. Encourage families. Empower them and then let them decide. Finally support they decision they make.
I would like to thank Paula, the founder of Growing Up Bilingual  , Eliana of Eliana Tardio, and Paloma for sharing with us a little bit of their personal lives!
Gutierrez-Clellen, V. F. (1999). Language choice in intervention with bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 8, 291-302.
Kay-Raining Bird, E., Cleave, P. L., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A., & Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech-language Pathology, 14, 187 – 199.
Featured Author:Lucy Windevoxhel, M.S., CCC-SLP
Originally from Venezuela Lucy has resided in the United States since 1993. While pursuing a graduate degree she received specialized training in working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. She is a certified leader in the Hanen Programs: It Takes Two to Talk and Target Word, as well as The Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing (LiPS) program and Visualizing/Verbalizing. In addition she has specialized training in oral motor therapy through Talk Tools and Beckman Oral Motor Assessments and Interventions.
Please support our contributing authors and visit Lucy’s website, A Love for Language.

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