Stop Telling Parents of Bilingual Children to Use One Language

I keep hearing these stories and it’s infuriating! There’s no evidence that bilingualism is confusing and no evidence that bilingualism makes developmental language disorder worse so stop it!Recently, I wrote a paper as part of a special issue on bilingual children with developmental language disorder. In it, I argued that we know more, we have a larger database and those who work with bilingual children who have DLD know more about that research. The challenge at this point is finding ways to put what we know into practice. I talk about the social advantages of bilingualism as well.

This section starts with a thought experiment regarding the often heard recommendation to use only one language. What would happen though if there was a decision to use only one language with a bilingual child with DLD?

Imagine a Spanish-English speaking children where the decision is made to only use English. What happens in this scenario? Would the entire family start using English (regardless of their proficiency levels in English)? If the family isn’t proficient in English, they would not be able to provide complex models of English. Errors and accents are to be expected, but I would worry about providing a model of language that is restricted because the family members are not highly proficient in English. And what happens with extended family? I could imagine a grandparent who essentially speaks only Spanish, would we expect the child to no longer interact with their grandma or grandpa? I think switching to all English would be highly restrictive. And what kids with DLD need is input, interaction, and modeling. They would miss out on the richness of family interaction. I think this would be worse for children, not better.

What if, on the other hand, the decision was to go all Spanish? Well, that might work at home but what about at school? Would the school switch to Spanish, or would the child be placed in an all-Spanish class? Would they learn to read and write in only Spanish? This seems somewhat bizarre doesn’t it? Would all the teachers, other children, aides, principal, school personnel have a high level of proficiency in Spanish?

I think it’s unrealistic to switch to only one language, and I think it can even be harmful to reduce the number of communicative partners a child has to interact with. Children learn by interacting, talking, and listening to language. Let’s make sure that our bilingual kids get all the support they can get by not taking away one of their languages.




, , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Graham Noble on September 19, 2018 - 12:12 am

    What are your thoughts on parents who are not completely proficient in English, but still try to speak that with their kids at home? It seems to me that kids should be exposed to the highest quality version of that language, so English at school, and first languages at home. I don’t think that’s the gist of your article, but we do sometimes see that thought experiment played out at our school where parents try to speak English at home concerned that their kids won’t be able to catch up. Just a few years later, and then the kids “have caught up” in English, but now are no longer able to communicate as well with parents.

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 19, 2018 - 9:00 am

    It is the first scenario– if the family doesn’t know English well (beyond having an accent) then it’s going to be hard to provide a rich and varied model of English. So, I would recommend that they mainly use the home language (the language they are likely more comfortable in) at home. I worry also that when parents are told to use only English that they’ll just reduce how much they talk about because they don’t know it well.

  3. #3 by Rachel Muldoon on September 19, 2018 - 3:20 pm

    What are your suggestions of working with families who code-switch? I don’t love modeling code-switching, but if it’s the primary method of the parent, the child also starts to use it. Then I get confused whether I should repeat the code-switched phrase, or switch some of the phrase so it’s all the same language. What I’ve found is frequently the majority of the sentence will be in L1, with a noun or so said in L2.

  4. #4 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 19, 2018 - 3:49 pm

    We all know that code-switching is a phenomenon that occurs when two languages occur in the same space. And we know that both kids with and without DLD code-switch. I don’t think it’s something we should correct. But, I think it’s fine to provide models of how one would say that in a given language (L1 or L2). That way the child has the opportunity to learn the vocabulary item that they may not know. I think it would be hard for families who often code-switch to shift to one language so I wouldn’t ask them to. I would want them to use their language to the fullest extent possible.

  5. #5 by Anonymous on September 20, 2018 - 12:57 am

    I totally agree with you and this is a great post but I find the title of your blog intriguing. 2 languages, 2 worlds…….. I lobby for an understanding that two languages is part of one world, the world the speaker inhabits. I would be intrigued to know the reason behind your choice.

  6. #6 by Anne Dahl on September 20, 2018 - 2:10 am

    Having raised bilingual kids after having studied the literature I can only recommend to do it, but what’s important is that the care takers stick to one language. This way the child identifies an adult with one language and doesn’t get confused on what language to talk to whom.
    In the long run the bilingual person may have a slightly smaller vocabulary in one language but in total a much bigger language and a broader cultural background. Usually bilingual kids tend to do better.

  7. #7 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 20, 2018 - 8:29 am

    In one of our earliest posts this is what I said: And that is what we mean by living in two worlds. Bilingual children often have to learn to navigate through two sets of social-pragmatic rules, different ways of interacting, different sets of expectations. These are driven by culture and often marked by language.

  8. #8 by Corina Vázquez on September 20, 2018 - 12:28 pm

    I am glad that a knowledgeable expert responds lto something that is almost obvious; restrict children to speak only one language is not very smart, in Europe they teach children to speak multiple languages and that is consider to be more cultural. We are lucky that English is the most spoken language in the world but from that to restrain our children to speak other languages is being incredible narrow minded; being multi language speakers is an advantage.

  9. #9 by Corina Goodwin on September 21, 2018 - 5:17 am

    Do you have similar advice for children with speech sound disorders? I see questions about bilingualism all the time in childhood apraxia of speech parent support groups, but it’s difficult to find researchers advocating for bilingualism for these kids.

  10. #10 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 21, 2018 - 7:29 am

    I don’t see why they couldn’t be exposed to two or more languages. I don’t know much about the population with apraxia but I don’t think that reducing opportunities for interaction would be helpful. For children with articulation disorders you might see acceleration of shared sounds and deceleration of unshared sounds much like you see in those without artic difficulties. I think that the risk for loss of opportunities to interact is the greater risk. Here’s more information about bilinguals with CAS.

  1. 6 Recommended Reads on Language & Speech Delay – Our ml home

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: