Bilingualism and Stuttering

bilingualism and stutteringThere is still a great deal of confusion about how bilingualism and stuttering relate.  We know (and many of us have experienced) that when you are trying to speak in a foreign language that we “um” and “uh” and repeat words as we concentrate on trying to speak correctly.  But when does a person cross the line from this second-language acquisition tendency into disfluency?

This question came to us and we thought we would share for others to benefit.

I am finding your information and products very helpful as a monolingual speech-language pathologist working with students who speak one or more languages (mostly Spanish with some Somali and French).
I have a bilingual student who stutters and I wonder if you had any research or information about stuttering in the first language, the language being learned, or both languages. My student stutters in both languages, so I am fairly certain that he has a bona fide fluency disorder. However, what about students who stutter only in one language? Do you know if that has to do with learning a second language?
Clients who stutter do so in both languages so you are doing well to continue seeing him or her.   I can give you a quick response but can find the research citations if you need them.

Bilingualism can affect stuttering in two opposing ways.

  1. Speakers of a new language are often disfluent and demonstrate non-stuttering like disfluencies, such as interjections and revisions, because they are working really hard to get their precise message conveyed. These speakers are fluent in their native language and produce some disfluencies in their second language.  This is akin to being more disfluent when we are up on a stage.
  2. Conversely, people who stutter are often more fluent in their second language because of the preciseness and amount of cognitive effort it takes to speak the second language.  However, when a person becomes more “fluent” in their second language and spend less cognitive effort on preciseness, their stuttering can emerge in the new language.  This is a bit like letting our guard down.

Stuttering-like disfluencies in both languages is the definite qualification.  And a bonus:  If a child can successfully demonstrate a shaping or modification technique in one language, I have found that he can generalize it over to his other language.

I would love the research citations if you have the time. This keeps coming up in my work.

My first student who did this stuttered not only in both languages, but typically on the same word–“because” in English and “porque” in Spanish.
Thank you for your reply and offer to send citations!

Here are some great citations and resources on bilingualism and stuttering

Let’s take a look at some of the research on bilingualism and stuttering

Lim and colleagues (2008) found that Mandarin-English bilinguals who stuttered exhibited similar rates of stuttered syllables across their two languages if their proficiency was relatively equal in both languages.  If they had lower proficiency in one of the languages, they had higher rates of stuttered syllables and a higher level of perceived severity in the language with lower proficiency.
Lim, V. P., Lincoln, M., Chan, Y. H., & Onslow, M. (2008). Stuttering in English–Mandarin bilingual speakers: The influence of language dominance on stuttering severity. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51(6), 1522-1537.
Howell and colleagues (2009) reported that, in a group of 38 bilingual children who stuttered, 94.7% of them stuttered in both languages.  They also found that age at stuttering onset was similar for sequential bilinguals, simultaneous bilinguals and monolinguals (4 years 9 months, 4 years 10 months and 4 years 3 months, respectively).  Similarly, male/female ratio was similar for the similar for sequential bilinguals, simultaneous bilinguals and monolinguals (4.1:1, 4.75:1 and 4.43:1, respectively).
Howell, P., Davis, S., & Williams, R. (2009). The effects of bilingualism on stuttering during late childhood. Archives of disease in childhood, 94(1), 42-46.
Thank you to Katrina V.  for a great question.

Written by: Scott Prath

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