I’ve got a twist on the age-old problem for SLPs– confusing second-language acquisition with learning and language difficulties. In this case, we are going to compare bilingualism and executive function.

Who doesn’t like a thought experiment right?  Especially if you are of the language nerd variety.

Here it goes:

Thought 1:

Speech-language pathologists work with children who have communication that is atypical.

Second-language acquisition looks different than monolingual development.

Therefore, second-language acquisition can be confused as being a language disorder.

No argument here, yet right?

Thought 2:

If we are saying that bilingualism is not a disorder, there should be some identifiable differences. 

And there are.

Articulation Example

Not a DisorderPotentially a Disorder
Child does not accurately produce a sound that exists in English (TH) and not their home language.
That, Spanish speaker: Dat  
Child does not accurately produce a sound that exists in BOTH languages and would be expected for her age.
(P) Pet, Spanish – Pato  

Language Example

Not a DisorderPotentially a Disorder
Child doesn’t use a language process (past tense verbs) that exists in English but not their home language.  
He walked to school (conjugated verb) Mandarin: Yesterday, he walk to school (not conjugated)
Child isn’t using a language process that exists in both languages.  
Plural /s/ on the ends of word.  English (catS)  Spanish (gatoS)  

Thought 3:

If second-language acquisition can be confused for a speech or language disorder, but there are ways to tell the difference, can the same be true for bilingualism and executive function?


The cognitive load of learning a second language can look like executive function difficulties.

And yes.

There is a way for speech-language pathologists to tell the difference.

If the cognitive effort of constantly controlling multiple languages has an effect on executive function development, then executive function task performance should differ between monolingual second language learners with little language control experience and multilinguals with more extensive language control.

Multilingual Language Control and Executive Function

Where do Bilingualism and Executive Function Overlap?

Think about it. Have you been in a store lately or tried to talk with someone on a trip that did not speak English?  You can almost feel the smoke coming out of your ears as you are trying to bend the gears in your brain and understand what they are saying.  Now, imagine that this is your daily experience.  Even worse, imagine that this is how you are expected to learn!

Four specific executive function difficulties share characteristics with processes of second language learning.  They are Focus, Working Memory, Self-Regulation, and Flexibility.

Bilingualism and Focus

By working in their new language, they may be eager to complete their assignments but they may not realize that they are making mistakes.

What this can look like:

  • Student appears like he is not hearing you when he is given directions
  • Student has a difficult time staying on one topic when talking

Bilingualism and Working Memory

Second-language learners may appear as though they didn’t understand you and may not completely follow through with instructions.  They may also require covering topic twice to fully understand.

What this can look like:

  • Student has difficulty following directions with more than one part
  • Student has to re-read passages in order to understand

Bilingualism and Self-Regulation

Second-language learners and students with executive function difficulties may repeatedly make the same mistake.

What this can look like:

  • Student makes frequent mistakes and doesn’t seem to notice

Bilingualism and Cognitive Development: Flexibility

Lastly, once a student experiences success, they may apply a strategy they learned to similar situations not understanding immediately why they are unsuccessful.

What this can look like:

  • Student has difficulty adapting to new social situations and understanding unwritten rules
  • Student gets stuck in one way of solving a problem

The exciting news:  SLPs can help BIG TIME

There are 2 sides to the bilingualism and executive function coin.  On one side, second-language acquisition can present difficulties that look like executive function issues as a child is trying to capture what is going on around them.  On the other side, being skilled in teaching EF strategies (Building Student Executive Functioning Skills) can enable you to rapidly help students from diverse backgrouds as they try to focus and organize in their new environment.  Here is what you can do right away:

Better Define “Bilingual”

Understandably, learning a second language takes a considerable amount of effort.  We would expect children who are learning a second language to have a learning experience that is different from monolingual students. 

By getting to know more about where a student is in their process of acquiring a new language we can understand why a student is struggling.  Don’t just rely on the often-old Home Language Survey from their file.

For example, let’s consider two 8-year-old students from Russian-speaking homes.  Both are struggling with following directions, staying on topic, and making frequent mistakes.  If one student has just arrived to the United States or has only been in an English setting for one year we would not be as concerned.  If the other has been in an English or bilingual setting since Pre-K we would expect greater abilities.

bilingualism and executive function comparison example

Getting to know your students can bring you to a greater understanding of why they are having difficulties.

And, if you want to up your executive function game, we wrote a series of articles on executive function and have 3 executive function CEU courses:


Here it goes:

Executive Function CEUs

Increasing Client Motivation and Self-Direction: Executive Function 201
Executive Function 101: Speech Therapy, Evaluations, and Classroom Support
Cognitive Processes and Changes Across Adolescence – Executive Function 301
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