*** This post can also be found on Speech-Language & Audiology Canada's Blog: Communiqué by clicking here.
Have you ever heard an adult say “I used to speak French as a child but now I feel much more comfortable speaking English?”. This is a very common phenomenon called language dominance shift. It is seen most often in regions where children are exposed to the English community language more than their native minority language. For some, it’s a lifelong struggle to maintain proficiency in a minority language where one has to constantly seek out opportunities to practice that language. If you don’t use it, you lose it! What about those who have a specific language impairment (SLI)? Can they maintain proficiency in their minority language?
What is SLI? Researchers agree that SLI is a neurodevelopmental disorder with genetic components. SLI interferes with a child’s brain development which, in turn, causes difficulties with language learning.
Children who have SLI have difficulty understanding language, learning language and talking. They may have a hard time putting sentences together, using the proper grammatical verb endings or even coming up with a word they want to use. Children with SLI often use simpler language than their same aged peers. Some may even omit certain parts of words and at a young age, might sound like they are mumbling. The latter usually improves with age, but many other difficulties persist.
Children with SLI might also have difficulties with their receptive language. However, this is much less obvious. Some might seem like they are not paying attention or like they are misbehaving or even lazy. When in reality, they might only be picking up odd words here and there, but not grasping the full message, making complex sentences a real challenge This can be due to a difficulty figuring out the meaning of words. Most longer words are not frequently used so those might be difficult to understand. The same goes for words that are difficult to imagine. If I say “apple”, a picture of an apple usually pops up in your head, but if I say “dimension”, that word is difficult to represent by an image and is often more difficult to grasp.
To Speech-Language-Pathologists (SLPs), these difficulties may seem somewhat obvious. To an elementary teacher, a daycare provider, a tutor, or even a parent, these difficulties sometimes go unnoticed. Disorders like dyslexia, ADHD or autism typically have much more obvious symptoms, which is why so many more people know about those disorders. SLI is a hidden disorder, making it that much more difficult to identify. It’s important to identify kids who have SLI at an early age. However, this is often difficult, even for a trained SLP when children are learning more than one language. Bilingual children who are at risk of SLI might appear to be having difficulty learning the second language, when in reality, their difficulties show up in all languages.
We know that solid first language development can have a facilitative effect on second language acquisition. In fact, difficulty learning the first language means that these children will end up with inadequate skills in both languages. It has been shown that insufficient abilities in the first language adversely affects second-language development. So how can we prevent this? The key is often language exposure and early identification.
For both typically developing kids and those who have SLI, most will have a dominant language and a non-dominant language. The dominant language is typically the language for which they have received the greatest amount of exposure. However, the dominant language can shift over time such that children who learn a majority language (i.e. English) as a second language often end up becoming dominant in that language.
The maintenance and continued development of skills in a minority first language depends on how much exposure they get in this language. Some experts say that children need to be exposed to a language 40% of their waking hours in order to become proficient in that language.
In these instances, studies consistently show that from early to middle childhood there is a shift to greater proficiency in the majority language. This is due to the rapid acquisition of the community language together with the slowing, stabilization or loss of the minority language, a consequence of different social experiences, opportunities and demands for the two languages. Note that this is not the case, however, for children who learn the majority community language at home (i.e. English) and attend French-immersion programs for example.
Studies have also shown that young children who have a minority language as their first language and who have SLI are even more vulnerable than typically developing bilingual children to lose their first language or show early plateaus if this language is not supported.
As a parent to a bilingual child with SLI, I battle every day with these notions. My daughter learned English at the age of about 4, making her a sequential bilingual. French is her first language, but we live in a predominantly English community. Even at her French school, children often converse in English in the hallways or in the school yard. She spends roughly 42% of her waking hours in English and 58% of her time in French*. I was stunned by these numbers because I always felt as though she was exposed to a lot more French than that. However, when I actually broke down her week, it made sense. My husband and I speak English to each other and she swims competitively for the local synchronized swimming team where all of the activities take place in English. Several kids in the neighborhood with whom she plays are Anglophone and she only watches TV (Netflix) or YouTube Kids in English. Minutes become hours and hours add up quickly!
I have always spoken to her in French and my husband learned the French language with the kids so he speaks to her mostly in French as well. However, I noticed during the summer break, and even more so over the recent Christmas holiday break that she seemed to naturally default to speaking English to myself and to her siblings. Whereas my other two kids continued to use French spontaneously. I calculated the hours of exposure for that week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and the percentages changed drastically. For one, there were fewer hours of language exposure, which is to be expected because children often take on activities that require very little talking, ex. drawing. For two, she was mostly exposed to the English language due to family visits with my husband’s side of the family as well as time with friends and activities such as downhill skiing and public swimming. Overall, my daughter was exposed to the English language 85% of the time and to the French language,15% of the time. This change in language exposure seemed to turn off or dim down her French language switch and I had to constantly remind her to speak French to me and to her brother and sister. Once school resumed, this was no longer the case! Her French switch was turned back on, so to speak.
I find the analogy of a dimming light bulb fitting. Bilingualism is a continuum. Our brains can have two or more dimming light bulbs at any given time and languages are activated according to our environment. We can dim one language and have the other one on high ampere (amp) or we can have both equally activated at the same time. It might be that children with SLI have weaker amps but they are still able to learn and maintain two languages. One language might just get dimmed or turned off must faster than it would for typically developing children.
I found this fascinating and did a bit of research to see if this had been studied. From what I could find, nothing has been done on this topic. Is this an indication that her language dominance may eventually shift to the English community language? Are the cognitive demands too high for her to consciously use the French language when submerged in an English environment? Is this the case for most children with SLI? Food for thought. I hope to find out!
*In order to help parents make this calculation, I have created a form that can be used for this purpose:
Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2017