Does the home language matter?

So, I’ve been bemoaning the state of the art in bilingual speech-language pathology. I know there’s a reason that services for bilinguals are not always that great and that service providers are not that knowledgeable in this area; very few speech-language pathologists are bilingual. And fewer still have training in bilingualism. I think that it’s a good idea for everyone to get training in bilingualism whether or not they are bilingual because they will still be making decisions that affect the lives of people with communication impairments.

One issue that I’ve seen come up several times with bilinguals (or individuals who speak another language than the mainstream language) with severe impairment is whether the home language matters. The logic is this; someone has such severely delayed language that communication is very limited in any language. The person is so limited that it would be a huge challenge to teach them even some basic rudimentary communication skills at all. Wouldn’t we just teach them those in the language the clinician uses? After all, what difference does it make?  Do we have to take home language into consideration in this case??

I happen to think it makes a HUGE difference. It makes a difference to the family, to the people around the person.

We use language to make personal connections with those around us– to communicate, to interact, to bond. And, if those around us are using a different language we don’t know it is more difficult to make those connections. Think about a very young child who hears a home language, but another language with the SLP. What language do you think they’re going to respond in best? Even if they don’t talk much—they may well comprehend much more of the language they are used to hearing. Even if they don’t comprehend everything, they may recognize the sounds, rhythms, tones, and the faces and smiles that go with those.

What about someone who has had a severe stroke, or is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s? Does the language you use with that person matter? Don’t we want to maximize the connections that people around them can make with the patient? Woudn’t the language make a difference here? Again, even if communication is very limited, I can’t see how using a language the person doesn’t know would be or could be helpful. 

So, don’t dare say it doesn’t matter, it does.

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  1. #1 by Mark Killingbeck on August 27, 2010 - 10:36 am

    I agree with you for the most part. What you are saying is that the “home language” allows us to work within the ZPD (zone of proximal development) of which Vygotsky theorized. You could also suggest that the home language acts as scaffolding in the learning process.

  2. #2 by Maria Hawkins on August 28, 2010 - 11:29 pm

    I have just discovered your blog and had to write to say how much I appreciate your post. I am currently raising my children with two languages (Spanish/English) and have been an elementary and early childhood teacher in low-income (high second language learning communities) and seen so much harm done from not recognizing the importance of the home language. I think so many children and families suffer because there is no thought given to insisting the home language be stopped or altered. It is a sad reality and one I hope will someday end. I look forward to following your blog.

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