Bilingualism: English as a second or other language

English is not your first language and now you are raising a child/children in Australia.  You know they need to learn English because they will need it at school and work but you have lots of questions about how to help them do this.  You might even have a child who is having trouble with their talking and so you are wondering if speaking more than one language might be part of the problem.  Here are some of the most commonly asked questions and answers with the facts we know from research evidence.  Teachers of children who are second or subsequent language learners of English are also often unsure what to suggest or recommend to parents. This article will provide you with simple recommendations that you can confidently make knowing they are based on research evidence not just theory or old wives’ tales. 

Question: Should bilingual children with language impairment be exposed to more than one language? 

Answer: YES! 

Children need access to language in order to learn to use language.  In the case of children who need more than one language to maintain family relationships children need to have access to all those languages.  Yet, there are persistent beliefs that for children with language disability, less is more − specifically, that is one language is preferable to two.  This belief that bilingualism is a disadvantage for children with language impairment is at odds with the evidence base on bilingualism.    

Question: Will exposure to more than one language cause language difficulties? 

Answer: NO! 

Most of the evidence about bilingualism and language impairment shows support for the perspective that bilingualism does not increase risk for impairment and that overall, distributions of impairment by level of severity are similar for monolinguals (children learning one language) and bilinguals (children learning two languages).  In a nutshell, as far as we can tell from the current research exposure to more than one language doesn’t cause language impairments or make them worse at all.    

Question: Does language therapy in a child’s primary language hold back their English? 

Answer: NO! 

There are not a lot of studies but the few that have been carried out show that a bilingual approach doesn’t negatively impact gains in the school language.  This means there is no reason to discourage families from using the home language.  Children do need to have exposure to a language in order to learn it, but providing support in a child’s first language does not delay acquisition of the second language, either for children with typical development or for those with language impairment.  An added advantage is that such a dual language approach supports growth in the home language as well.   

Question: Are there any advantages to learning more than one language? 

Answer: YES! 

We know that for normally developing children who learn more than one language they have a definite advantage over their peers in a number of things such as the following:

  • cognitive skills
  • attention
  • working memory
  • social skills and perspective taking
  • inferencing (picking up on “clues”)

We don’t know yet whether these advantages hold true for children with language impairments as there hasn’t been enough research in this area yet.  But, exposure to different languages, conversational partners, and situations can facilitate language learning in a social context and provide bilinguals with developmental disabilities multiple opportunities for using language which is a good thing.

In Summary

  1. Expose children to any language that is needed as part of their cultural, educational and family interactions. Don’t limit exposure to languages other than English!
  2. If a child has language learning difficulties then provide therapy in any languages where it is practical and feasible to do so.
  3. If your child has a language difficulty it’s not because they are learning more than one language it’s because they have a language difficulty.
  4. Our Speech Pathologists can help provide speech and language therapy for children in the Toowoomba area that are learning English as a second or other language.  We assist with English speech pronunciation as well as vocabulary and grammar (word and sentence use).  If your child is having trouble learning to talk then get help early.

  Reference: Elizabeth D.  Peña, Supporting the home language of bilingual children with developmental disabilities: From knowing to doing, Journal of Communication Disorders, Volume 63, September–October 2016, Pages 85-92.

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