parents speak the home language

Should parents speak the home language to their child if he has an impairment?

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. 

  • Affirming Identity in Multilingual Classrooms
  • 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?

Written by: Scott Prath

8 Comments on “Should parents speak the home language to their child if he has an impairment?”

  1. May 13, 2021 at 11:04 am #

    We have a wonderful dual language (Spanish) program here in San Antonio Texas. The children are encouraged to speak the home language(Spanish) and acquire academic concepts in Spanish in their dual language classroom. We have typically developing children who are in the program who only speak English and end up speaking beautiful Spanish by the end of fifth grade. My concern is this, with the growth and popularity of the dual language program, we have had mono language speakers (English), who speak only English at home, and want their severely language delayed child in the dual language program. What I have seen is that these children (SI) do not fair as well as their typically developing peers. They struggle with academics and language. Some of them have been pulled from the dual language program in first grade but by then they have lost the whole foundational kindergarten year. I have looked for research relentlessly on this specific topic but the only research is on bilingual children are exposed to another language at home. I understand my issue is very specific but if you have any research on the topic I would love to be pointed in the right direction.

    • May 13, 2021 at 2:31 pm #

      Hi Nidia,
      You are right and the rule stays the same – to provide a strong language model at home. If that’s English, then there is your best bet. Sometimes it does take a while to transition children over if the initial placement wasn’t the best but it is worth the effort. A similar example to what you shared are with children with multiple disabilities that see many provides from an early age. I have worked with children with Down Syndrome or Autism who had OT/PT/ST/daycare in English because they needed the specialties and there were not bilingual providers. So they show up for Pre-K as an English speaker with bilingual or parents. It takes a bit to sort out. I am not sure of any research on this as it would be an N=1 situation.

  2. May 13, 2021 at 11:27 am #

    Thank you Scott, I’ve enjoyed all the classes you’ve taught and this article is great. I’m a Bilingual SLPA and there’s so many misconceptions on this topic. Because I’m bilingual I’ve gone far in my career as an SLPA.

    • May 13, 2021 at 2:25 pm #

      Glad you joined the field and stay tuned. Always more good stuff to come!

  3. May 13, 2021 at 11:27 am #

    This is so true. In the school district where I work many of the families speak an indigenous language from Mexico. When one parent learns Spanish, often from working in the fields, Spanish is felt to be a more advantageous language for their children to learn. The parents speak to their children with their broken Spanish, resulting with the result that their children lack a strong language foundation in any language. I find myself stressing to the parents that speaking to their children in their native language is the single best action they can take so their children will have more opportunities in life here in the United States.

    • May 13, 2021 at 2:25 pm #


  4. May 23, 2021 at 8:11 am #


    Thank you for bringing this up! I am a bilingual (Eng-Sp) SLP and work in a district that has a Spanish Immersion program. Most kids coming in are monolingual English. We have this conversation every time a kiddo with a language delay or multiple disabilities applies to the program.
    Obviously, I have an affinity bias and want all of them to be part of the SI program. My gut also tells me that monolingual English kid with disabilities will do just as well in a Spanish classroom as if they were in an English-speaking classroom, provided that the school can offer the same levels of support in Spanish as they do in English.
    But I have a hard time finding research for this kind of bilingualism to support my claims.
    Ultimately, to me, it comes to a matter of ADA. All students should be given the same opportunities, regardless of disability status, and this includes being in a foreign language immersion program if the family chooses to do that. The big questions is whether you’re taking away academic opportunities by doing so. Which is where I wish more research was done.

    • May 24, 2021 at 8:12 am #

      I was in a similar placement recently where classrooms were paired and students spent the morning with a Spanish teacher and afternoon with an English teacher or vice versa. It worked well for most kids but you are right that it raised questions when it was an English-home/dominant child with communication difficulties. It seems like they supported the academic stuff (reading, math…) pretty well. Here is the thinking and why it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. The Spanish dominant kids had a 50/50 world. Spanish at home and in school. English in school and media, sometimes siblings, anytime out of the house, etc. The English dominant kids had more of a 75/25 world where the only Spanish came from school. The trick from a Special Ed. standpoint was diagnosing and choosing goals appropriately. The academic folks (diags) had a harder time deciding the the setting was a good fit when they were qualifying kids.

      I would love to see research out of Switzerland or Central Africa, places like this where these settings are the rule, not the exception. Great discussion.

Leave a Reply