Can a Child with Special Needs Learn a Second Language?

CME WebsitesChild Development, Special Needs Diagnoses

We receive many questions from parents in our Ask A Therapist forum asking “Am I harming my child or causing additional speech delays by speaking to him in two languages within the home?”. For any therapist who thinks the answer is “yes”, we encourage you to think again.

When I started in early intervention 20 years ago I was told by a speech therapist to encourage a family I was working with to “stop speaking to their child in Spanish and focus on English first” so the child did not “become confused”. Even though I am not a speech therapist and did not do previous research on the subject of bilingualism in early childhood, I did not agree with her theory. I learned Spanish as a second language in middle school through college and knowing how multicultural our world was becoming, I felt it was unnatural for this mother (who’s native language was Spanish) to be forced to speak only English to her daughter in the home. Well, the SLP and I did get into a battle over it, but I continued to encourage the mother to speak Spanish to this two year old, while the father spoke to her only in English. I used both languages in my developmental therapy with her. I was fascinated that she could understand both languages, even though she wasn’t verbally using either language very much yet. When she was evaluated by an English speaking SLP they failed to pick up that what they thought was gibberish, was actually word approximations of some Spanish words. I wish I could give you the results of where that child is today to prove that she is now fluent in both languages, but as EI therapists we only get to see our kids until they turn three!

In the “old days” which wasn’t so very long ago, the thinking was that teaching a child two languages simultaneously, especially a child with special needs (such as Down syndrome) would only further impede his language learning. Also, things have changed culturally. For example, my husband is Chinese and his parents purposefully did not teach him Chinese as a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s because they wanted him to be “American” and talk like a native English speaker, not speak with a Chinese accent like they did. He now wishes he had learned Chinese. How beneficial it is for us to know a second language in today’s world.

We posted an article on our Early Intervention Support website entitled Early Bilingualism which you may wish to read since it gives tips for parents to encourage dual language learning at home. But, the question remains that if a typically developing child can learn two languages, what about a child with a diagnosis that is associated with speech delays or cognitive delays?

Dr. Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada says “These children (with Down syndrome) have traditionally been discouraged from becoming bilingual by some speech language pathologists and other professionals due to perceived difficulties.” Her research from 2007, which is ongoing, does not support this theory. She goes on to say “There is no evidence in our study to suggest input should be restricted to a single language. In fact, these children can do very well in acquiring two languages.” They followed the same set of children over a period of 6 years to determine if kids with Down syndrome can become bilingual and to what extent, and also whether bilingualism has affected their development in any way. So far they have concluded that it hasn’t been detrimental. You can read more of Dr. Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird’s study.

In another study Down Syndrome and Bilingualism by Ms. Johanne Ostad she concluded that “As of today there exists no empirical evidence against bilingual upbringing of children with Down syndrome, but a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting it. Hence when anybody points out “all the problems” the child with Down syndrome has, none of the problems mentioned actually speak against bilingualism.” Ms. Ostad did some of her research in Malta, where Maltese and English are both spoken often and so children with Down syndrome are exposed to both languages on a daily basis. Read the Down Syndrome and Bilingualism study.

Sue Buckley in Down Syndrome News and Update, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1998, pp. 29-30 indicated that it is the “quality and quantity of a child’s language learning experience” that makes all the difference. This is true for any child, whether they have special needs or not. We see many children in early intervention who are language delayed simply because they lack a language rich environment or lack good speech role models. Ms. Buckley states “Some (children with Down syndrome) have been in bilingual homes and exposed to two languages from birth. They have learned the two languages at the same time, though usually have more productive vocabulary in the one most frequently used in the family, while showing good comprehension of the other. Where signing is being used with speech, the sign seem to help the child to learn the word for something in both languages – it acts as a ‘bridge’.”

Children with developmental delays or diagnoses such as Down syndrome should be treated like any other child when it comes to language learning. Supplementing their language learning with total communication, whether it be sign language, picture communication, and the like can only be beneficial in the long run. The “old” way of thinking may stem from therapists and teachers who are monolingual themselves, thus having their own bias about dual language learning. Shared languages within the home only strengthens families. Restricting a parent from speaking to their child in their native language only makes a parent feel uncomfortable and awkward around their children, something we do not want to happen in early intervention. Multilingualism provides children with a whole new set of language and cultural experiences that can only benefit them in the future.

Pamela Wilson, the Bellaonline Special Needs editor recommends reading the book Unlocking the Enigma of the Second Language Learner by Deborah Jill Chitester M.S. CCC-SLP Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist – Second Language, Literacy & Learning Connection
So, can my child with special needs learn a second language? All the current research points to a resounding YES!