Confusion continues over the question of whether a bilingual child with an impairment should continue to speak the home language.  

In our clinic during the initial parent interview we often hear this:

My doctor told us not to speak our home language to our child because he said it will confuse him.  

On our campuses we hear this:

Yes, other bilingual children are speaking Spanish.  But since she has an impairment and it will be harder for her to learn two languages, we only let her speak English.

On our website we get questions like this:

Dear Dr. Kester,

I’m American, raising my son with mild language delay in Latin America. Every single professional we’ve seen tells me I should speak to him in Spanish, even though I’m not a native speaker.

This has been a continuing battle, and they’ve only let me off the hook temporarily at the preschool on my promise I would show them some scientific research. Can you point me in the direction of this research?

On the surface this kind of makes sense, right?

Child is having difficulty with communication = simplify communication.

Unfortunately, development doesn’t work that way.  It is more like:

Children imitate communication. = Give them the best example to imitate.

Bilingual children transfer abilities from the home language to second language. = Strong first language syntax/vocabulary/use leads to stronger second language communication.

Doctors, teachers, parents, you, and I are all focused on the same thing, enabling a child to interact, grow, learn, and be happy. Everyone’s intentions are great, their efforts are coming from a good place, and their reasoning makes a bit of sense.

However, we are the communication experts. Most bilingual research is less than 20-30 years old and chances are no one else has seen it.  It’s our role to gently let them know that not being able to speak the home language will have the opposite effect.  

Here are answers to some of the most common questions to help keep your bilingual students and families moving in the right direction.

Can bilingualism cause speech delay?

While it’s true that sounds develop at a different, often slower rate when a child is acquiring a second language, bilingualism cannot cause a speech delay.  Think about a diverse classroom.  There are many bilingual children and some who have communication difficulties.  But there are also monolingual children in speech therapy.  Looked at globally, approximately 50% of the world is bilingual which would be a heck of a lot of speech students if bilingualism caused speech delays.

Now, this isn’t to say that some of the sounds of English aren’t difficult for bilingual students.  That is an ESL issue and not a need for special education. 

Why should students be allowed to speak their native language in school?

Research shows that academic performance improves when children are able to speak the home language and use it to learn content and learn English.  Moving between two languages actually reduces the brain having to do too many tasks at once, lessening cognitive load. 

Additionally, welcoming a language means welcoming a student. The classroom and activities have to be provided in English, but what about when students work together, are on the playground, or in the lunchroom? 

Here is a great article to share: Seven reasons for teachers to welcome home languages in education

Why is it important to speak your native language?

Continuing to speak the natve language has a positive impact on areas well beyond a child’s academic and communication development.  Children who speak their native language retain a strong connection to their extended family, culture and community.  They also demonstrate a stronger self identity.  

It takes a while to develop a second language.  During this time, a child can continue to interact intellectually on the same level as her peers if she is able to speak the home language.  And lastly, while we are focused on young children, we can’t forget what an advantage it is to be a bilingual professional. 

  • Cummins, J. Bilingualism and Minority-Language Children (Toronto, Ontario: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1981).
  • Cummins, J. Schooling and Language-Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework (Los Angeles, California: California State University, School of Education, 1994).
  • Gildersleeve-Neumann, C.E., Kester, E.S., Davis, B.L., Pena, E. D. (2008).  English Speech Sound Development in Preschool-Aged Children From Bilingual English-Spanish Environments.  Language, Speech and Hearing Services in the Schools, v. 39, 314-28.
More Reading:

Telling Parents their Child has an Impairment (Spanish)

Should I Stop Speaking my Native Language with my Children?

WordPress Lightbox