Can a child with language difficulties be raised bilingual?


Families’ expectations about bilingual parenting can be disrupted when they receive the news that their child has a language or communication disorder.

What are these disorders?  The most frequent are developmental language disorder (DLD), which affects the abilities to understand or produce sentences or structured speech without being explained by neurological causes, intellectual disability or sensory deficits. Simplifying, it may seem like when they talk to us we constantly have to decipher abbreviated text messages like: “xq stas :(?” (why are you sad?).

On the other hand, it is common for children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to literally understand expressions in conversation such as: “Can you pass me the salt?”, as being able to do so, making shared communication difficult.

Doubts then arise about whether it is possible to educate these children in several languages ​​and the decision to transmit their language or that of the environment becomes complicated. Can a child with difficulties in language development be bilingual?

Although scientific evidence indicates that children with altered language or communication can become bilingual , and that bilingualism is not harmful to them , some professionals continue to advise that they stop speaking in more than one language.

Cultural and linguistic diversity

We find many types of families with cultural or linguistic diversity (families that speak or sign two different languages ​​at home, one language at home and another at school, migrant families with languages ​​of origin and cultures different from that of their place of residence…) .

Before the birth of a child, bilingual families or residents in bilingual environments make plans about how they would like to transmit their language and culture. They will learn the languages ​​in family environments or at school. Families will make decisions about which languages ​​to speak, with whom, and when to use them.

However, it is not only a family decision, since other people will try to influence this decision: other family members and professionals (teachers, pediatricians, speech therapists, psychologists) who will not always base their arguments on scientific evidence.

The opinion of these professionals may not be neutral, and may be based on their own linguistic competence or experience , that is, the languages ​​they themselves speak.

Thus, some monolingual professionals may tend to recommend families use a single language and bilingual professionals recommend the use of more than one.

What are the consequences of the withdrawal of languages?

Frequently, proposing a situation of molinguism when the environment is linguistically or culturally diverse imposes a social distance between the family and the child, resulting in less participation of the child in family conversations. It may happen that adults talk to him less, which can have emotional consequences . Sometimes, these situations lead parents to speak in languages ​​​​they do not know, giving them incorrect models.

Families react to these practices. For example, in transnational families, with relatives in other countries, removing the family language could prevent relationships with some relatives as they do not have a common language.

In the words of a mother of an eight-year-old English-Spanish bilingual child with developmental language disorder, residing in Madrid:
“When he was diagnosed with the disorder, they recommended that we speak to him in only one language. And we told him that we couldn’t do that precisely because of the emotional issue. Because he got along very well with his cousin, although he saw him twice a year, he still sees him, he adored his grandparents and it was the only way to communicate with them, and he communicated with them.

The concept of disability

What influences whether families can be successful in maintaining their languages ​​of origin ? The concept of disability that parents have may influence, considering their child’s difficulties as an impediment to communication or, on the contrary, that they can achieve achievements within their limitations.

On the other hand, the misconceptions they have about bilingualism. For example, if they believe that mixing languages ​​is a problem, they could stop speaking to them in several languages.

The birth order of the child also influences, whether only the parents speak to them, and whether the languages ​​spoken by the family are languages ​​of prestige within the community. Prestige depends on how people in the community in which they live value the language, it is not a characteristic of the language itself. For example, Swahili is a prestigious language in Africa, but this is not the case in other countries.

For the maintenance of the family language, the daily use of languages ​​by parents, their educational level, their knowledge of the languages ​​spoken outside the home and the size of the cultural group are relevant.

Also, in a migration context, the reasons why they migrated, cultural identity (how they identify and maintain their culture), duration of residence and language policies of the host country, and proximity to the place of origin.

Therefore, the decision to raise a child as bilingual belongs to the family, but there are a series of circumstances and people that can influence the success of achieving it. To achieve this, it is essential that parents are well informed and improve the training of professionals so that they adapt their practice to scientific evidence.

Author Bio: Silvia Nieva is a Research Professor in Psycholinguistics and Speech Therapy at Complutense University of Madrid