If my child has a language disorder, should I drop a language?
“Hi, my son is 3 years old. We live in London, my husband is
English and I am Italian. I had noticed that my son speaks
less than his classmates, then the teachers referred him for a
language assessment. The Speech and Language Therapist said
he has a language disorder.
Should I stop speaking Italian to my child?
Could he be confused?”
Chiara’s question is one of the most frequently asked questions that bilingual parents ask themselves.
Raising a bilingual child, although very common, is not always easy.
There are many unknowns… am I doing the right thing? Will I be overloading my child with information?
Or, [insert name of know-it-all acquaintance] advised me not to speak two languages when he is so small, otherwise he’ll get confused.
In cases where the child is diagnosed with a speech delay – or disorder – then… The questions are much more.
We all know how difficult it is to learn a language other than ours, and if it is difficult for an adult, let alone a child, right? So if my child has a language disorder should I drop a language?
Actually – No, you shouldn’t!
Let’s see why:
When a child has difficulties with language and communication, this is regardless of the languages he/she is exposed to.
It is as if Language were a large umbrella, and individual languages were under the umbrella.
If the child had difficulty with Language (the umbrella), the problem wouldn’t be how many languages there were underneath it, but the umbrella itself…
And that’s precisely why the recommendations to drop a language are incorrect:
Dropping (removing) one language does not improve the other language, it does not solve the language disorder, on the contrary: the child, who previously had two resources that could be used for language rehabilitation, has now lost one.
Also, asking parents to speak a language they don’t know perfectly, which they are not comfortable with (as well as unnatural) is not ideal, because the child would be exposed to an wrong language model.
Most bilingual children have some family members (for example grandparents, uncles and aunts, etcetera) who do not speak one of their languages.
Removing a language means depriving the child of one of the most important social relationships of childhood, the one with their family.
So, dear Chiara, don’t worry: you don’t have to stop speaking Italian to your child.
For parents of bilingual families who have a child with a speech disorder, the golden tip is… to continue speaking the language you feel most comfortable with.
And, if possible, access a bilingual speech and language therapy service, which will have the goal to rehabilitate the child’s speech and language in both languages.
I know, bilingual speech therapists are few, and it is not always easy to find them!
In the case that the Speech and Language Therapist is monolingual, the key word is collaboration between the Speech and Language Therapist and the family.
And how do you do that? Easy enough!
The activities that the Speech and Language Therapist carries out in sessions are aimed at rehabilitating some aspects of language, that are not related with which language is used.
These aspects have to do with attention, memory, the social communication, problem-solving… and of course language abilities, for example vocabulary.
If the same activities are repeated at home, in the child’s second language, it is possible to:
Rehabilitate both languages
Repeat the concept (cause you know, repetita iuvant – repeating does good, especially in rehabilitation)
Establish links between the two languages.
(You can read more about this in this article here)
I’ll give you an example:
If a child has a difficulty with his vocabulary (for example he does not know all his colors), and during the Speech and Language session, colors are introduced in English, at home the colors can be translated and repeated in both English and Italian.
In this case it can be found that Red and Rosso begin with the same sound, that Orange and Arancio are called this way because they take their name from the fruit in both languages, and that instead the words Green and Verde look very different, but they mean the same thing.
I leave you with this Chinese saying:
Speaking two languages is to have an extra window from which to look at the world.
If you have any questions, write them in the comments below so I will try to answer them ASAP.
See you soon, ciao!
For more information, click on these links:
– Reasons why dropping a language is a bad idea: here
– Common questions of bilingual parents and answers: Here
Kohnert, K., et al. (2020) “Language Disorders in Bilingual Children and Adults” Page 190-194
Cordero, Kelly Nett, and Kathryn Kohnert. “Home language support for English language learners with communication disorders.” California Speech-Language-Hearing Association (CSHA) Magazine 36 (2006): 5-7.