Parents of children with autism upon diagnosis have been repeatedly advised to speak only one language to their child, specifically the language that the child will receive the majority of their education through, regardless of the parent’s proficiency. This recommendation was based on ensuring that the child was exposed to “simplified” linguistic input in order to facilitate language learning and use. A child exposed to only one language would learn more quickly and be linguistically proficient.
The threshold and cognitive development interdependence hypotheses (Cummins 1979) indicate that when first language skills are impaired or underdeveloped, limits are set in turn on second language development. A child having difficulty learning the first language is unlikely to succeed with the second language. More recently, several criticisms of this hypothesis have emerged. The University of California (2005 Tamar Kremer-Sadlik) reports that there is a lack of studies tying language impairment and bilingualism.
When a child is directed to speak his educational language without speaking his home language, communication with his family will suffer. A variety of negative consequences will ensue: breakdown in relationship with his parents, siblings, and extended family, less opportunities to learn about social interactions, less opportunities to participate in community and family activities.
Young children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI), learning two languages at the same time, do not appear to experience greater difficulties in learning their two languages, as compared to monolingual children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) (Crutcheley et al 1997). When examining vocabularies of English-Chinese children with ASD who were studying both languages simultaneously, bilingualism did not appear to interfere, as measured by similar vocabulary scores. Children involved in sequential bilingual education were also successful, although students with strong community/school support fared better.
These findings support the idea that children with language impairments are likely to struggle with language learning but not at a rate greater than monolingual children with the same impairment. Dr. Fred Genessee asserts that children with SLI are able to acquire functional competence in two languages at the same time, within the limits of their impairment. At this point, the question becomes how to achieve this objective. In a setting where it is useful and important, the child should be offered every opportunity to learn and use two languages.
A strong foundation in a child’s home language enhances the child’s ability to learn a second language. Along with speaking your home language, the child should have exposure to music and audio-video opportunities. Parents should feel comfortable speaking their language as well as introducing entertainment, incorporating the native language, in their home.
The following suggestions are offered:
- Initiate the second language instruction by teaching vocabulary. Pair the object with the label.
- Build associations with specific persons (i.e., grandparents) or locations (i.e., ethnic centers, family gatherings, grandma’s house, etc.
- Minimize confusion by explaining to the child that a language is a different way of communicating. The diversity of people necessitates that things be said in different ways.
- Madlena Cruz-Ferrera offers the ABCs of Multilingual living, including: T for Time, making time for your child’s language learning, R for Read, incorporating reading in every way you can, & P for Perseverance, you make be discouraged along the way, but continue.
Kremer-Sadlik, Tamar. 2005. ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, ed. James Cohen, Kara T. McAlister, Kellie rolstad, and Jeff Mac Swan 1225-1234. Somerville, MS: Cascadilla Press.
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Dr Joseph Perron
Clinical Psychologist, WEAP