Does bilingualism hurt children with DLD?

You know I’m gonna say no. But, it’s important to establish what does happen and to do so with data. After several studies we have enough data to look at this question more carefully with a set of children with developmental language disorder (aka: language impairment; specific language impairment; or primary language impairment) who had varying levels of exposure to Spanish and English.It’s important to look at the question controlling for level of exposure because this could skew results. Often, studies of bilingual DLD are relatively small because it’s difficult to find kids with DLD who are bilingual. DLD occurs in about 7% of the population; bilingualism in the U.S. is between 20% and 40% of the child population (depending on where you are); Spanish speakers are about 80% of the 20-40%, so bilingual DLD is about 1.4-2.8% of the total child population, so it takes time.

Why do we have to control of level of exposure? 

Well, the classification isn’t really bilingual vs. monolingual, although many studies of bilingual DLD do divide children up that way from necessity. We’ve divided into dominant Spanish, balanced, and dominant English knowing of course that among people exposure is continuous– where do you draw the dominant Spanish vs. balanced line? To a certain extent it’s arbitrary. We’ve also divided into 5 groups (functional monolingual English, dominant English, balanced, dominant Spanish, and functional monolingual Spanish). With typical kids, it’s easier to see the continuous nature of exposure and we’ve done this with our screening studies using regression and using GAM modeling.

It’s harder to use a continuous approach with children who have DLD because there aren’t as many of them. But, it’s important to do so. You want to be able to compare children with similar levels of exposure to really understand the effects of DLD independent of the effects of bilingualism. Otherwise we could be comparing balanced bilingual children who have 50/50 levels of exposure to each language with perhaps children with are bilingual but have 70/30 levels of exposure to L1 and L2. This is why a continuous approach is better. We can look at whether children’s performance is parallel across levels of bilingualism, or if they are non-parallel.

parrallel bilingual LI and TD

In this first example, we can see that the two lines representing ability groups are parallel. There are differences between the two groups based on ability, and when tested in the L2 those who have more exposure to the L2 score higher regardless of language ability status. This is a situation where exposure does not additionally affect performance.

LI TD exposure affects LI more

In this next example, you can see that there are differences between children with and without language impairment, but the two lines are not parallel. The line for language impairment is steeper. The difference between the two groups at points A and B are different. With B being smaller.  This kind of pattern would show that language impairment would be more affected by bilingualism.

exposure bilingual advantage

A third possible pattern is one where bilingualism advantages children with language impairment. The line of the children with DLD (or language impairment) is flatter compared to typical children. Here the differences between more balanced bilinguals (A) with and without language impairment is smaller than that for those who are more monolingual (B), This pattern shows that language impairment is not affected by bilingualism, and shows a relative advantage.

In our study, we looked at the performance of 600 bilingual children with and without language impairment on two kinds of measures (semantics and morphosyntax) in two languages (Spanish & English). For the younger kids, we used the BESA, and for the older kids with used the BESA-ME. We compared them on their standard subtest scores. There were 400 children with typical development and 100 children with DLD. What we found were patterns that corresponded to the first and third options described above. Either the lines were parallel indicating that there was no additional effect of bilingualism on impairment, or there were smaller differences for the kids in the middle (balanced bilinguals) and typical kids at the same level of exposure compared to those on the monolingual end in the language they were tested in. semantics & morpho divided input

This finding adds one more piece to the puzzle regarding bilingual DLD. Here (again) we see that bilingual children with DLD are not disadvantaged relative to typical children once we control for level of bilingual exposure. And in some instances, they may be advantaged over their more monolingual peers with DLD. So, moving them toward monolingualism may not help (and could hurt).



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  1. #1 by Sheila Cullen on August 30, 2018 - 10:07 am

    I am a bilingual speech-language pathologist in a Spanish-English dual immersion K-6 school. What is your guidance on choice of language of intervention for children identified with DLD?

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on August 30, 2018 - 10:25 am

    Thanks for your question. I think that for language of instruction for intervention I would go with both languages if possible. If the child has demands in both then the intervention should be in both. I don’t think this means you do the same thing in both. So, for English intervention I’d look to see what the needs are there– it may be for certain vocabulary or grammatical forms, etc. same thing for Spanish. In our research we’ve often matched the language (at least at first) to the language of core reading instruction.

  3. #3 by Anonymous on September 25, 2018 - 9:17 am

    Thak you for the updated information and leanings about your post.Spain should read this and make lesson for this comments and blog!!

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  4. #4 by gerald brand on October 31, 2018 - 8:34 am

    Very beautiful blog! Thanks for sharing it!

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  5. #5 by leo cross on November 10, 2018 - 12:53 am

    This information makes do a lot of knowledge for all the readers. Please keep on updating us soonest. Thank you for the learning very nice.

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  6. #6 by Renee on March 25, 2019 - 1:19 pm

    I am a bilingual school psychologist working in a center based special needs preschool with students from age 3-5 in NY. We have classes of 8 (preverbal, cognitive delays/ASD), 10 (ASD and language delays/disorders) and 12 (verbal with ASD, DLD, etc.) I have been asked to serve on a committee to help develop the school’s bilingual philosophy and classroom model. Is there a model that you suggest to support language/communication development in young children with disabilities in the classroom? My reading of the literature is that we support home language/culture while bringing in English in a planned, thoughtful way. And that the best outcomes occur in a maintenance/additive model versus a transitional/subtractive model. However, in my setting I am finding that there is resistance to using both languages in instruction because “it will be too confusing” for the children. Therefore, the bilingual teachers have been advised to use Spanish only. As the year is progressing there is recognition that many of these children are demonstrating receptive and expressive abilities and preference for English. Most of the children have significant delays in both, and some may know more English labels because they had Early Intervention services in English or were exposed to both languages in the home/community.

    In the setting where I worked previously, a dual language type model (alternating English/Spanish) was used. When I suggest this model, the others in the committee feel that this will be too confusing for the children. Given the changing demographics of the community (e.g., many children coming in knowing a mixture of both) and the fact that many of the children will be transitioning to an English only Kindergarten with Spanish support, they are talking about switching to an English only model with Spanish support.

    Now, to make this even more confusing, none of the classrooms in our setting are designated “bilingual” programs. They are “Interim Alternate Bilingual ” programs, which usually implies that English is the language of instruction. All of the teachers assigned to these classrooms are fluent English/Spanish speakers and their assistants are bilingual as well.
    Would love to hear your thoughts.
    Thank you.

  7. #7 by Elizabeth D. Peña on March 26, 2019 - 10:07 pm

    I have been thinking about this issue since you posted yesterday and I’m not sure what to tell you that will help. YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!! Kids will not become confused, kids with DLD and other language-based impairments do not become confused with exposure to two languages. In this paper
    I talk about what might happen if we choose one language over another as kind of a though experiment. If we were to take away a child’s home language, then opportunities for communication with immediate and extended family might be lost. But, kids need the second language for academics and for community success. Yes, it’s hard especially for kids with DLD to learn language. And learning two is hard as well, but not really harder than one. I think with a one language model kids will lose ground and end up further behind. We can see that to an extent in the figure. Kids who are at the monolingual end of the continuum and who have DLD are not advantaged over those who use two languages– and the kids who use two languages can do it in both! Good luck to you and keep fighting for what you know the research says.

  8. #8 by Renee on March 29, 2019 - 10:47 am

    Thank you so much for your helpful response and for the encouragement! I am trying hard to understand this conceptually so that I can best apply this understanding to practice.

    Which leads to my next question! 🙂 What is best practice for instruction in a bilingual special ed preschool classroom? It is difficult to find any specifics, except that the same principles that apply to typically developing children also apply to children with disabilities (e.g., importance of home language and bringing in English in an intentional way, and of course developmentally appropriate practice and emphasis on good relationships/classroom climate).

    I’m thinking specifically about a class comprised of preschool children with significant cognitive delays/ASD, who are nonverbal, and are just beginning to use a communication system like PECS? Would you begin by using Spanish only in the classroom then slowly introduce English at certain times of the day, working up to 50/50? Or does one start from the “get go” with certain times of day Spanish and certain times English? Is separating languages for instruction advisable?

    I appreciate any guidance you can provide!

  9. #9 by franc on August 4, 2019 - 6:51 am

    This article is very knowledgeable.Thank you for sharing you blogs..Spain should read about this post.

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  10. #10 by Esther's Muse on October 28, 2019 - 7:46 pm

    HI! Your research and blog are fascinating to me. I am not in SpEd, but I am a bilingual reading specialist, currently doing my doctoral research about oral language and literacy for emergent bilinguals. I am convinced that it would help if reading teachers had tools to help them observe more carefully students’ L1 oracy, particularly in regards to syntax. Is there a way I could learn more about BESA for research purposes? From my understanding, my university (St. Mary’s College of CA) does not have access to BESA. Thank you!

  11. #11 by Esther's Muse on October 28, 2019 - 8:23 pm

    Hi, another question: Is there a newer version available of: Bilingual Language Development and Disorders in Spanish-English Speakers, Second Edition (2012)? If not, do you recommend a comparable resource for getting an overview of the research? Thanks!

  12. #12 by Elizabeth D. Peña on October 28, 2019 - 10:24 pm

    the authors are working on another edition, I imagine it will be out in about a year.

  13. #13 by Esther's Muse on October 29, 2019 - 7:41 pm

    OK, thank you for responding!

  14. #14 by Elizabeth D. Peña on November 28, 2019 - 12:01 pm

    sorry I just saw this– contact me if you would like to use an experimental version for the purpose of research–
    you can purchase it at

  15. #15 by Anonymous on January 4, 2020 - 6:24 pm

    Thank you Dr. Pena! Looks like my research design is shifting a bit, so I will not be needing to use the experimental version of BESA at this time. BUT, I very well may contact you in the future! Esther

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