Language disorders and bilingualism – challenging myths and prejudices

Updated recommendations

The Royal College of Speech and Language therapists (RCSLT) have launched their new website. The tablet and mobile-friendly site features Clinical Guidelines, including the new Bilingualism Clinical Guidelines. Members can access the full document, which details typical bilingualism and speech, language and communication needs in the bilingual context. This brings together much of the evidence, which has been published since the last clinical guidelines were issued over ten years ago and so is a major update for speech and language therapists and those working with bilingual children and their families.

Brexit

Brexit has unleashed an unprecedented level of hostility to those with minority ethnic backgrounds (Burnett, 2017). Social and political attitudes to other cultures has always had a major effect on parents’ attitude to using home language with their children. The use of languages in public (other than languages indigenous to the UK, mainly English, Welsh and Gaelic) may provoke more negative reactions as a result of Brexit. Professionals have a duty to support bilingual families and challenge the myths and prejudice bilingual families encounter on a daily basis. All the evidence from around the world is very clear that bilingualism is the norm, does not prevent learning additional languages and helps children understand their identity and cultural heritage. The main way we can do this is to encourage home language use and provide intervention, support and advice in home language. This is why working alongside bilingual professionals such as interpreters and bilingual assistants is crucial to the workforce.

Beware outdated recommendations

Are you still recommending the One Person One Language Approach (OPOL)? Many professionals think that young children will be confused by adults switch from one language to another. However, children are far more sophisticated than previously thought. If you missed this article from The Independent last summer, take a look. Chisato Danjo, a lecturer in Japanese and Linguistics at York St. John University highlights that “Rigidly policing consistency in one parent, one language approach could actually restrict bilingual children’s linguistic ability and creativity”. This chimes in with my own research with Pakistani heritage children, which showed that code switching increased with age, and that those children who did not code switch (mix languages) were very likely to have language disorder (Pert & Letts, 2006).

RCSLT Clinical Guidelines state bilingualism is an advantage, regardless of the presence of a speech, language or communication disorder. Is this true even for children and young people with severe and pervasive conditions? Well, yes!

Could bilingualism actually be protective?

The creativity and cognitive flexibility brought about by bilingualism may even prove to be protective for children with developmental disorders. Last year, researchers found that children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions and Down’s Syndrome were not placed at a disadvantage by bilingualism. Researchers completed a systematic review and found that there was ‘…no detrimental effect of raising children with ASDs in a bilingual home’ (Wang et al. 2018). Rebecca Ward and Eirini Sanoudaki from Bangor University studied children with Down’s syndrome from Welsh+English and English only homes and found that those from bilingual homes had similar levels of English to those from monolingual homes. Watch this BBC video of the adorable Elinor Curtis.

I am not aware of a single study that shows bilingualism to be a disadvantage to children, even in the presence of speech, language and communication needs. The evidence is now available from numerous communities, in different countries around the world, and with myriad language combinations that bilingualism is best.

What next?

Find out more about the advantages of bilingualism and how to support bilingual children and their families when speech, language and communication disorders are present at my Masterclass in Manchester on Friday 1st March 2019:

Bilingual Children with Speech and Language Difficulties.

Show references

Burnett, J. (2017) Racial violence and the Brexit state. Race & Class, 58(4), 85-97.

Danjo, C. (2018). Why it’s a sign of creativity when bilingual children mix languages. The Independent. Tuesday 26th June 2018. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/linguistics/creativity-bilingual-language-learning-parenting-a8410246.html Accessed 11/01/2019.

See the full research paper here:
Danjo, C. (2018). Making Sense of Family Language Policy: Japanese-English Bilingual Children’s Creative and Strategic Translingual Practices. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (2018): 1–13.

Pert, S. and Letts, C. (2006). Codeswitching in Mirpuri speaking Pakistani heritage preschool children: Bilingual language acquisition. International Journal of Bilingualism, 10(3), 349-374.

Wang, M., Jegathesan, T., Young, E., Huber, J., and Minhas, R. (2018). Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Monolingual Vs Bilingual Homes: A Scoping Review. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP 39.5 (2018): 434–446.