How to Support Our Bilingual Families

Provide the family with accurate information about learning two languages. 

We are finally at a time when more research is being done in the area of bilingual language development for children with developmental delays. This is no small thing as the amount of research on bilingual language development in children with disabilities has increased ten-fold to where it was a few decades ago. With the knowledge we have now, we can reassure our families that children who are capable of learning one language are almost always capable of learning two. Many parents that I have met resist teaching their child the home language because of fear that this will delay learning the second language, which in our case here in the U.S. is English. Although learning two languages may initially result in acquisition of some vocabulary in L1 and other vocabulary in L2, the expressive vocabulary size of a bilingual child’s dominant language is comparable in size to a monolingual child’s expressive vocabulary. In one study, the expressive English vocabulary of two groups of children both in the early stages of language development with Down Syndrome was compared: children who were bilingual and children who were monolingual. The bilingual children’s vocabulary in English was as large as the children who were English monolingual speakers. And we aren’t even taking into account the amount of vocabulary in the second language! (Kay-Raining Bird, et al., 2005).

Parents can and should be the best language models to their child and provide a strong foundation in the home language. If the parents’ use of L2 is limited, how are they going to provide a good language model? As a speech-language expert, you need to provide parents with both short-term goals and long-term consequences. Although parents may have a short term goal of their child saying as many words as possible, regardless of the language, they should realize that in the long-term, their child will more easily acquire L2 if their L1 is strong. I have also seen the opposite end of the spectrum, which is when parents are afraid to expose their child to L2 because they believe it will overpower L1. While this is a legitimate concern for parents as children often show preference for the majority language, there are ways parents can do their best to ensure that L1 is maintained. You can provide this handout for parents which offers ideas and suggestions for helping to support the home language. Children who learn two languages simultaneously from infancy show the best outcomes in both languages (Gutierrez-Clellen, 1999). However, this doesn’t mean that a second language can’t be learned sequentially, especially if the only option for therapy is in L2.For sequential language learners, some research has demonstrated better results if a child with language impairment waits to learn L2 until kindergarten, after they have a firm base in L1 (Pettito et, al., 2001). The logistics of doing this  are tricky, especially when therapists, siblings, and t.v. expose the child consistently to English. I have heard of some families who are almost militant about not letting one word of English be spoken in the home. Again, I understand wanting to have structure and consistency but I do think that being almost fearful of exposure to another language might create unnecessary negativity and stress around language learning.

I’ll be posting more on how to implement therapy in L2 when you don’t speak L1.

Here are handouts for other professionals to share on dual language development

Supporting Our Bilingual Families

Here are the handouts in English and in Spanish about supporting the primary language!

Ayudar a su hijo ser Bilingue

Teaching your child your native language

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