“What language do you speak at home?” This seems like a very simple question, but for many of the bilingual families I work with, it’s not. Once their little one is diagnosed with a language delay, these families feel they’re forced to make a choice, an often very painful one.
For most of my clients here in California, the choice is between English, the dominant language, and Spanish, the language of home and the heart. Parents believe that they can only choose one.
Unfortunately, many forsake Spanish and choose to use English,mostly because they’re afraid their children will fall behind in school later on . After all, if learning one language is hard enough, why stress them out with two?
Lots of my speech and language colleagues share the same belief. The practice of going from bilingual (two languages) to monolingual (one language) is quite common. But is it necessary? What does the research tell us?
Surprisingly, the results say that exposing language-delayed toddlers to two languages won’t worsen their delay.
Studies center around two groups of second-language learners. Simultaneous Language Learners are exposed to two or more languages since birth. Sequential Language Learners are those who learn a second language after acquiring their first.
Johanne Paradis from the University of Alberta looked at the word skills of two groups of language-delayed kids: those that spoke only one language and the other, a group of Simultaneous Language Learners. As it turns out, both groups of youngsters performed equally well, regardless of the number of languages spoken. She concluded that “parents of simultaneous bilinguals should not be discouraged from continuing to raise their children bilingually” if their children have a language delay.
Researchers looked at children with specific disabilities to see if exposure to two languages hampered their language development. According to speech-language pathologist Lauren Lowry from the Hanen Centre, kids with disabilities like Autism or Down Syndrome can learn second languages, and don’t suffer from being exposed to two languages from birth.
The home language is crucial for parent-child bonding and for transmitting the family’s culture and customs-things that make a child feel part of their community. Regardless of which language is spoken, children should learn the main language that’s used at home.
But don’t be afraid to fly your bilingual flag. Exposing your language-delayed child to two languages will not hold them back.