Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bilingualism and Language Delay: Part 1

Language and speech disorders don't recognize borders. They are not limited to monolingual children, or bilingual ones either. And for many - especially families raising bilingual children - they can be hard to identify or mistakenly diagnosed.

This is a rather obscure topic. And because many of you are teaching children who speak Spanish only, or who speak both English and Spanish, I thought it would be good to have someone who can talk knowledgeably about this issue.

We are so very, very fortunate today to have the first of a series of posts by Dr. Elizabeth D. Peña, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Texas at Austin, and her colleague, Dr. Lisa M. Bedore, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders. Together, Dr. Peña and Dr. Bedore have been researching language disorders in bilingual children for the last 10 years in order to come up with an accurate test to assess this problem. This test would help school pathologists to determine if a bilingual student does indeed have a true speech-language disorder, or if he or she is simply in a normal stage of development for learning two languages at once.


by Dr. Elizabeth D. Peña and Dr. Lisa M. Bedore

The question of whether a child has a language impairment or delay comes up frequently with children who are learning two languages at one time. Often, parents and teachers wonder whether bilingualism can slow down language learning. Other questions concern whether a child has a language delay or disorder and whether it’s okay for children with delays to be exposed to two languages.

Can bilingualism slow down language learning?

The logic to this question is that if children spend half of their time in one language (L1) and half of their time in another language (L2) then they get less input (compared to monolinguals) in both their languages. The logical conclusion is that they may only learn half (or less) of what they need. But, this isn’t completely true. Work examining vocabulary learning in bilinguals does show that bilingual children as a group tend to know fewer words than monolingual children when tested in only one language. But, their test scores are generally within the normal range for their age. This effect is pretty consistent across studies including the work of Barbara Pearson and Ellen Bialystok. In our own work on a grant funded by the NIH, Diagnostic Markers of Language Impairment in Bilinguals, preliminary findings of a screening test given to about 1200 children also shows that bilingual children score lower in each of their two languages when compared to monolinguals.

On the other hand, bilingual children know another language. If you put their two languages together they know more total words than monolingual children of the same age. Consistent with the work of other researchers with younger children, we have found that preschool, kindergarten, and first grade Spanish-English bilinguals distribute their vocabulary knowledge across their two languages. Some of their vocabulary was duplicated in each language such as knowing mama and mommy, or water and agua. But other words bilinguals may know only in one language—logically the language they need that word for. In preschoolers for example, we’ve noticed that many of the children we work with know shape, color, and location words in English, and know familial relationships, furniture, kitchen tools, for example in Spanish. This division reflects the context in which these words are learned.

What about children with language impairment? Can they handle two languages?

The incidence of language impairment in the general monolingual English speaking population is about 7%. Children are said to have a language impairment or delay when they have special difficulties learning language and these difficulties do not have a physical or neurological cause. The research on language impairment in bilinguals is just emerging. But, given what we know about bilinguals with typical development it doesn’t seem that it would be logical to suggest that bilingualism is the cause of language impairment. Language development is not slowed down when you consider children’s total language knowledge. In addition, these children are tackling the somewhat more complex task of learning two languages. Furthermore, it does not make sense to limit bilinguals with language impairment to only one language. Children with language impairment learn both. Our emerging longitudinal work seems to indicate that bilingual children with language impairment continue to learn both languages at about the same rate as typical bilinguals, even though they perform lower than their typical peers. Furthermore, knowledge of one language can serve as the foundation for the other language.

Research with bilingual children who have language impairment seems to indicate that they will have delays in both languages—not because of bilingualism but because of their underlying difficulties that affect language learning. We know from the work on French-English bilinguals with language impairment that these children seem to show patterns of difficulty that are comparable to their monolingual language impaired peers.

Next time, we will post on characteristics of language impairment in bilinguals. To find out more about language impairment and bilingualism go to: http://2languages2worlds.wordpress.com/

UPDATE: To learn more, take a look at Part 2: Language Impairment in Bilingual Children.


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