Should my bilingual daughter drop a language?
Q. The speech language pathologist (SLP) at school has suggested that my daughter, who suffers from a specific language impairment, should focus on English. I have some reservations because we are an English/Spanish bilingual family. I feel she should be able to speak both languages. What are your recommendations?
A. I hear this question frequently as I work with many bi- and multilingual families. First, it is essential to remember that there is no one-size approach to this issue. We must examine each case and account for all its unique variables from family to family.
Building blocks of language
First, I would want to determine the overall linguistic situation at home. For example, how many languages are spoken in the home? Is one of these also the spoken language of the community or school? Is there a dominant language (one spoken more often than another) in the home or during daily life? Do the speech difficulties appear in all spoken language or just the language spoken at school?
Unfortunately, there is a common belief that bilingual or multilingual children are more at risk for language delays and disorders. While bilingual or multilingual children may have speech-language delays or disorders they are at no more risk than their monolingual peers. The fact that they speak more than one language would not be the root cause of any disorder.
I believe when at all possible it is advantageous to continue with each of the spoken languages in the home. Depending on the speech-language impairment, focusing on only oral language may be an acceptable compromise. Unless there is a clear or immediate need to read or write in the home language.
Keep in mind that oral language supports the building blocks of written language. Additionally, underlying oral and written language skills are transferable between languages. For example, if the alphabetic systems (ex. Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.) of the home (L1) and academic or target languages (L2) are the same then having a firm ability to speak in the home language paired with the written language concepts learned in school will eventually lead to achieving written language ability in the home language. To recap, oral L1 plus written L2 should produce in time written L1.
Parents as language models
I also feel that it is essential as a parent to speak to your child in your native language. You provide an authentic and accurate model for your child. For example, you may use idioms and expressions in your native language that you would not necessarily use in any other language (i.e. English). The exposure you provide is equipping your child with crucial communication tools regardless of which language. Remember these tools transfer in time to the other language.
Your SLP may have given you exercises to practice at home. Verify with your speech but many of these can be done in your native language and the concepts usually will apply universally, especially if the alphabetic systems are the same. However, if for example, your daughter has issues with a specific sound that doesn’t exist in your native language then of course you will need to practice them exclusively in the target language.
Consequences of abandoning the home language
Next, we need to consider the consequence of what happens when a child cannot effectively communicate with others in the family. The resulting loss of communication brings about a sense of feeling cut off and of isolation from particularly elders in the family who are less likely to speak or able to speak comfortably in the child’s spoken language. This disconnection can be significant as the role of elders in many cultures is to be a moral compass guiding younger generations. Elders are also an essential link to the family history. Without an effective means to communicate this meaningful connection gets shut down.
In the same way, communicating with elders and others in the community is crucial; we need to factor in if there are brothers or sisters who would continue to speak in both languages. If so, this could set the now monolingual child apart from her siblings, leading to frustration and loneliness. Imagine conversations buzzing around you and constantly feeling left out simply because you were unable to understand what was said.
I would also want to take into consideration the cultural significance language plays. For some, the ties between culture and language are inseparable. Thus abandoning a language could result in a disconnection from one’s cultural heritage.
Ultimately, the decision rests with you, the parent, and if you feel that her continuation of both languages is vital, then all efforts should be made to pursue both languages.
- A bilingual child is at no additional risk of having a speech delay or disorder
- The decision to eliminate a home language should only be decided when all factors have been taken into consideration.
- Focusing on speaking in the home language can be a good compromise for a child with a speech delay or disorder.
- Oral and written language are building blocks of each other and learned communication skills transfer between languages.
- It is essential to continue speaking to your child in your native language.
- Finally, eliminating a home language could have an isolating effect on your child.