In this post, I would like to briefly touch on bilingualism and language impairment. That is to say, can children with language impairments successfully learn more than one language? As a speech and language pathologist, parents often ask me this question about their children, especially when it comes to choosing the language of instruction. It’s not an easy answer to give. It really depends on many factors, lets start first with what some of the experts have found.
In my practice, I often fall back on the work of two researchers: Dr. Kathryn Kohnert, speech and language pathologist and professor at the University of Minnesota and Dr. Fred Genesee, psychologist and professor at McGill University. Dr. Kohnert talks about the essential elements that are inherently related to the acquisition of a language. Language skills are developed in terms of Means, Opportunities and Motives. She calls it “MOM”. The individual must have, first and foremost, the Means to learn a language. That is, unimpaired cognitive, sensory, social, emotional, and neurobiological systems. Any deficiencies within these systems may cause difficulties in the acquisition and use of language. Second, Opportunities that offer a rich linguistic environment as well as positive Opportunities allowing for the acquisition and use of a particular language for rewarding communicative interactions must be present. Finally, the Motivation that may come from various sources is of ultimate importance: be it internal or external resources, environmental needs, opportunities and preferences associated with various social contexts. All these factors play an essential role in the acquisition and maintenance of language among children. Be it a first language or a second language. Children with specific language impairments have no frank neurological impairments, which means that they too can learn two languages if they are provided with opportunities and if they are MOTIVATED to learn both languages.
In most cases, the children that I work with have the Means. However, because we live in a predominantly English community, it’s often the Opportunities and the Motives that are not up to par when children are also learning a minority language. This is especially true when almost all of the adults who speak the minority language also speak the majority language… Children sometimes just don’t see the need to put so much effort into learning the minority language. It is therefore our job, as parents, clinicians and educators, to ensure that children understand WHY they are learning two languages and give them reasons to WANT to speak BOTH languages.
Dr. Genesee talks more about what is required for learning a second language. It’s as simple as TLC. After all, everyone needs a bit of Tender, Loving Care! However, for him, TLC stands for Thoughtful, Long-term Commitment and Creating an additive learning environment. He actually gave a very interesting lecture called “Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and Possibilities” on the Minerva series where he describes these elements in detail. You can listen to his podcast here. I will summarize them briefly for you but I do recommend you listen to the podcast.
Thoughtful essentially represents that our job as parents is to plan our child’s language learning experiences so that our children obtain adequate exposure to both (all) languages. We need to make decisions about who uses what language and when as well as provide continuous and regular exposure to both languages. Bilingualism is a Long-term commitment. Parents need to be prepared and stick with it as well as make long-term arrangements that will ensure continuous exposure to both languages. It is important for parents to not change strategies or schools without serious thought. Finally, Dr. Genesee talks about creating an additive learning environment. The learning environment is crucial. While children have the capacity for dual language competence in the long run, it is not automatic and depends on the quality of the input. Parents need to be confident and to highlight the positive aspects of being bilingual. Creating opportunities to expand language learning such as playgroups, family holidays, regular visits with family members who speak the heritage language, etc. is of the utmost importance. Even when family members live far away, a lot can be done via Skype or Face Time. Here is a link to one parent’s blog who gives insightful ideas on how to make the most of Skype. Last but not least, we need to advocate for our child’s bilingualism. If we don’t, no one else will!
To the question: Is bilingualism and SLI a walk in the park?, I answer “No”. But - there’s always a ‘but’ - neither is monolingualism and SLI. Children with SLI have difficulty learning language. Period. Be it one language or two, they will struggle. Bilingualism is possible and it is worth it if the two languages are valued in the family. For bilingual children who have SLI, the answer is not as simple as dropping one language. Nor should it be. The heritage language is just that: part of a child’s heritage. We need to remember that bilingualism isn’t always a choice, it’s intrinsically linked to our culture and it’s a way of life. Did you know that there are more bilingual speakers in the world than there are monolingual speakers? Yet we always seem to think that bilingualism is an exceptional thing! It’s not rocket science, we just need lots of patience and TLC! Like Marianna Du Bosq often says on her Bilingual Avenue Podcast: Bilingualism is a marathon, not a sprint! Embrace your child’s bilingualism especially if the minority language is part of your heritage. There are a lot of resources out there, many of which I will share on this blog in future posts. Thanks for reading!
My next post will be on May 4th: "What IS a Heritage Language and Why is it Sometimes Difficult to Learn?"