Bilingualism and intellectual disability: what is recommended in families with more than one language


Until recently, it was common to recommend that a person with an intellectual disability not be exposed to a second language . Likewise, it was not common to carry out linguistic policies that encouraged the maintenance of heritage languages ​​(foreign family language) among migrant families.

However, some people with intellectual disabilities who grew up in families with this profile developed these languages ​​in parallel to the environmental languages ​​of the different host territories without negative consequences being seen .

For this reason, it is surprising that, today, this practice that promotes monolingualism among people with intellectual disabilities is still widespread in a large number of countries .

Monolingualism recommendations

Let’s look at a practical example that we came across during our research: seven years ago, in two different countries (Canada, an officially bilingual country, and the United States) we met two families who had received similar linguistic recommendations encouraging monolingualism.

In the first case, the psychopedagogical counselor of a Canadian educational center recommended to the bilingual family that used the two official languages ​​of the territory – English and French – in the family environment to reduce the language of communication to one of the two.

In the second case, the counselor at an American school also recommended reducing exposure to a single language (the majority language) by sacrificing the heritage language, which had a great impact on the form and dynamics of communication of said family.

It is obvious that these situations cannot be generalized, but in certain countries and contexts they occur systematically.

How is this explained? The answer is simple: there is not always an action plan aimed at addressing bilingualism or multilingualism in populations with atypical language development.

However, we know that in Catalonia, for example, and surely in other parts of Europe and the world where two languages ​​coexist, an inclusive and integrative education is promoted among students with intellectual disabilities where bilingualism is promoted without this being perceived. as a problem, but rather as an opportunity, just as it is an opportunity for the typically developing population.

No negative effects

Regardless of whether researchers agree or not that there is a bilingual advantage at a cognitive level , it is common, as we have seen before, that people with genetic syndromes that may lead to intellectual disability are recommended not to acquire or study a second language. .

However, studies focusing on bilinguals with Down syndrome show that they behave comparably to their monolingual counterparts in their dominant language.

Shouldn’t this be reason enough to promote bilingualism and multilingualism instead of discouraging it?

Bilingualism whenever possible

If both bilingualism and multilingualism are promoted among the population with typical language development, it is logical to propose that they also be promoted among people with intellectual disabilities linked to genetic syndromes (Prader-Willi Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, etc.).

What is happening today is that there is a fairly clear discrepancy between empirical evidence and practice , although this is changing. For this reason, we believe that we must rethink the situation so that, instead of discouraging bilingualism as a common practice in these populations, we make this the default option.

This does not mean that bilingualism is imposed, but that the many factors that make each individual unique are taken into account and this requires an intervention plan designed according to their needs.

Monolinguals and bilinguals with intellectual disabilities

Although the current literature focused on the study of bilingualism in individuals with intellectual disabilities linked to genetic syndromes is focused mainly on people with Down syndrome , it is necessary and important to expand this line of research to other less known genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome. Prader-Willi .

The linguistic profile of the Prader-Willi population has barely been explored and the little we know refers to monolingual speakers. We believe that our research is the first to analyze the linguistic abilities of bilingual speakers with this syndrome.

Our results, which so far focus on two case studies and a broader project that we will report on in the near future, support what has been seen in previous work on other genetic syndromes: the absence of a negative effect of bilingualism.

Findings on Prader-Willi syndrome

In our study , carried out in 2018, the narrative skills of a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English with Prader-Willi syndrome were analyzed. This individual was asked to narrate two stories from the same picture book series (one in Spanish and one in English) and his narrative skills in the two languages ​​were analyzed in comparison with those of a bilingual Spanish-English speaker with typical development.

For both participants, English was the environmental and dominant language and Spanish was the heritage language. In line with previous work, the results confirmed that narrating is an arduous task for speakers with Prader-Willi syndrome . However, analogous results were found in both the dominant language (English) and the heritage language (Spanish).

In another study , we analyzed the representation of grammatical gender in code -switching sentences in a bilingual speaker of English (as the dominant language) and Spanish (as the heritage language) with the same syndrome.

The results were compared with previous work that used the same linguistic experiments to study the representation of grammatical gender in typically developing Spanish-English bilingual speakers. The English-Spanish linguistic combination is interesting because, unlike Spanish, English does not have grammatical gender.

The results showed that, in both comprehension and production data, the bilingual speaker with Prader-Willi syndrome behaved similarly to typically developing bilingual speakers whose dominant language was Spanish. That is, this individual, despite being a heritage speaker, had the same intuitions as typically developing bilinguals whose dominant language was Spanish : he preferred sequences in which the Spanish article agreed with the Spanish translation of the English noun ( the book / the house and the book is red / the house is red ) compared to the sequences in which it did not agree ( the book / the house and the book is red / the house is red ).

These findings, in addition to being important for the scientific community, are useful for professionals who work with monolingual and bilingual speakers with this syndrome. They show us that there are areas related to certain linguistic skills to which special attention must be paid during the formative stage of these individuals: narrating seems to be more problematic than internalizing the inherent gender of nouns and the agreement with articles and adjectives.

Refugees and migrants with atypical development

From the Nebrija-Santander Global Chair of Spanish as a Language of Migrants and Refugees of the Antonio de Nebrija University and from the Bilingualism and Spanish Acquisition Research Group of the University of the Balearic Islands, we would like to raise the flag that promotes bilingualism not only in the general population but also in the migrant and refugee population with typical and atypical language development.

This means that special help is provided to the maintenance of the languages ​​of origin and the co-official languages ​​of the different territories among the population with typical development and that this help is extended to migrants and refugees who have atypical language development.

Author Bios: Estela Garcia-Alcaraz is Professor and Researcher in the department of Spanish, modern and classical Philology at the Universitat de les Illes Balears and Juana Muñoz Liceras is Professor of General Linguistics and Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Ottawa. Researcher of the LAELE group and the CINC and Director of the Nebrija-Santander Global Chair of Spanish as a Language of Migrants and Refugees at Nebrija University