Should I stop speaking my native language with my child?
In my 20+ years as a bilingual speech-language pathologist, this is the question I have heard more than any other, “Should I stop speaking my native language with my child?” I heard it 20 years ago, and I just heard it again 20 minutes ago. Every time I hear a parent tell me that someone told them they should not speak their native tongue with their children, I cringe. I just cringe.
Let’s Trade Places
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these parents for a moment. Let’s imagine that English is your native language. Your job takes you to a country where a language is spoken that you do not speak. Let’s say it’s German. You’ve listened to some German lessons, have learned some nouns and verbs, and can construct very basic sentences. Your child is enrolled in a school where German is the language of academic instruction.
You go to pick up your child at school and are speaking English with another parent when a teacher pulls you aside and tells you that you are doing your child a disservice by speaking English to him. She says, “You need to speak German with them at all times.”
You want to do right by your child. So, you commit to speak only German.
Your German, to be frank, isn’t good. Your vocabulary is limited. Your verb conjugations are incorrect, and you don’t know many descriptive words.
What kind of language model are you providing for your child?
A less-than-ideal one.
In which situation do you think your child will fare better? One in which you speak poor German or great English?
Yes, great English.
Share the Research, Please.
So, fellow blog subscribers, I am going to lay out the research that shows that it is not detrimental for children (even those with speech-language impairments) to learn more than one language.
Please share this with your team and your colleagues and physicians and administrators who work with bilingual families. Bookmark it and pull it up everytime you hear someone suggest a family not use their native language with their children. Share it with your bilingual families so they can feel good about the gift they are giving their children!
Let’s get the research into people’s hands so we don’t have families being told to stop speaking their native language! If there’s a study you want me to add to this, please send me a note.
Why is it important for parents to speak their native language to their children?
Wong-Fillmore (2000) and Portes & Hao (1998) reported that parents had difficulty supporting their children’s socialization process and there was a negative impact on the closeness and intimacy between parents and children.
A study by Tseng & Fuligni (2000) concluded that “Adolescents who conversed with their parents in different languages felt more emotionally distant from them and were less likely to engage in discussions with them than were youths who shared the same language with their parents.”
Portes & Hao (1998) found that parental language input was the strongest indicator of whether children learned to speak a home language.
DeHouwer (2007) found that in 93% of 1520 families studied, siblings demonstrated very similar levels of proficiency in the parents home language. This supports the influence that parental language input plays in children’s language development.
The benefits of bilingualism have been found to last a lifetime. Bialystok (2009) described an enhanced executive functioning and a reduced rate of decline of executive control in aging for bilinguals as compared to monolinguals.
Being able to speak more than one language is a gift. Parents, give that gift to your children.
As speech-language pathologists, we are able to support our diverse caseloads, and telling our families to continue speaking their native language is valuable. So, let’s move on to the next question.
What if my child has a language impairment or language delay? Then should I stop speaking my native language and focus on his language of instruction in school?
Gutierrez-Clellen, Simon-Cereijido & Wagner (2008) found no differences between monolingual and bilingual 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds with language impairment in their difficulties with verb markings (e.g. –s, -ed) and subject use in English. Overall, they found no evidence of any particular vulnerabilities that could be attributed to a child’s bilingualism.
Paradis, Crago, Genessee & Rice (2003) had similar findings when studying monolingual English-speaking children with specific language impairment (SLI), monolingual French-speaking children with SLI, and French-English simultaneous bilinguals with SLI. The bilingual children in their study appeared to have difficulties with tense marking to the same extent as the monolingual English speakers and the monolingual French speakers. In other words, learning two languages did not exacerbate their difficulties with the acquisition of verb tenses.
Feltmate & Kay-Raining Bird (2008) compared French-English bilingual children with Down Syndrome to monolingual peers. They found that, while bilingual children with Down Syndrome exhibited similar delays in both of their languages, monolingual children and bilingual children with Down Syndrome did not demonstrate significant differences. Further, the monolingual children with Down Syndrome and the and the bilingual children with down syndrome showed similar patterns of language deficits relative to their typically developing peers. They found that the introduction of a second language to children with Down Syndrome did not seem to have any detrimental effects on the children’s overall language learning. All four children in their study developed functional skills in their second language.
Kay-Raining Bird and colleagues (2005) compared the language abilities of eight children with Down Syndrome from bilingual homes to a group of monolingual controls with Down Syndrome. Their results indicated that monolingual and bilingual children with Down Syndrom have similar profiles of language abilities. They found no detrimental effect of bilingualism on language development in children with Down Syndrome.
In a study of sixty (20 monolingual and 40 bilingual) 2-to-4-year-old children with autism, Ohashi and colleagues (2012) found no differences between monolingual and bilingual children with autism on any of the language measures they explored. They included in their analysis age of first words, age of first phrases, receptive language scores, expressive language scores, and functional communication scores.
Hambly & Fombonne (2012) compared simultaneous bilingual children with autism and sequential bilingual children with autism to monolingual children with autism and found no differences between any of the groups in language level. They concluded that bilingual children did not experience any additional delays in language development as compared to monolingual peers.
In addition to these studies, Lauren Lowry of the Hanen Centre wrote a beautiful article on this topic that discusses research findings relating to simultaneous and sequential bilinguals, and majority and minority languages.
So, my friends, let’s spread the word so we don’t keep hearing this advice being given to parents 20 years from now!
(Help us spread the message. You can print our visual in English here: Speak-Native-Language-2.png (227 downloads) . You can print out our visual in Spanish here: Speak-Native-Language-Spanish-2.png (141 downloads) .
De Houwer, A. (2007). Parental language input patterns and children’s bilingual use. Applied psycholinguistics, 28(3), 411-424.
Feltmate, K., & Bird, E. K. R. (2008). Language Learning in Four Bilingual Children with Down Syndrome: A Detailed Analysis of Vocabulary and Morphosyntax L’apprentissage du langage chez quatre enfants bilingues atteints du syndrome de Down: une analyse. Revue canadienne d’orthophonie et d’audiologie-Vol, 32(1), 7.
Fillmore, L. W. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early childhood research quarterly, 6(3), 323-346.
Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. F., Simon-Cereijido, G., & Wagner, C. (2008). Bilingual children with language impairment: A comparison with monolinguals and second language learners. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29(1), 3-19.
Hambly, C., & Fombonne, E. (2012). The impact of bilingual environments on language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(7), 1342-1352.
Bird, E. K. R., Cleave, P., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A., & Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14(3), 187-199.
Ohashi, J. K., Mirenda, P., Marinova-Todd, S., Hambly, C., Fombonne, E., Szatmari, P., … & Volden, J. (2012). Comparing early language development in monolingual-and bilingual-exposed young children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(2), 890-897.
Paradis, J., Crago, M., Genesee, F., & Rice, M. (2003). French-English bilingual children with SLI: How do they compare with their monolingual peers?. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 46(1), 113-127.
Portes, A., & Hao, L. (1998). E Pluribus Unum: Bilingualism and language loss in the second generation.Sociology of Education, 71, 269–294.
Tseng, V., & Fuligni, A. J. (2000). Parent‐Adolescent language use and relationships among immigrant families with East Asian, Filipino, and Latin American backgrounds. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(2), 465-476.