Language delays and Bilingualism

I discovered this very interesting site for Speech Pathologists, about language delays and bilingualism.

They differentiate between children who learn two languages at the same time, for instance, a child who has two parents speaking two languages within the home, or who is hearing a minority language at home, and a dominant language in the culture outside the home daily, and children who learn languages sequentially. For instance a child who speaks English at home and in the rest of her environment, and then starts taking French classes after the English is already well established. Or a child who grows up in a Spanish speaking country and then moves to an English speaking country.

There is also differentiation between additive bilingualism: ie a child knows a language and adds on a second one so that the child speaks/understands both languages, and subtractive bilingualism: ie a child speaks and understands Chinese in her native land and then is adopted into Quebec, and as she learns French, she loses her Chinese skills. Or a child whose early environment is a minority language at home with her family, and then who integrates into the school system and surrounding peer culture, and loses the minority language either through attrition or choice.

I found the page looking for benefits of bilingualism for a friend, and indeed in this article there are a lot of mythbusting statements for non-language-delayed children. But also a lot of information I found pertinent to Big Boy who is experiencing delays in morpho-syntax (sentence structure and grammar). We had another speech evaluation today, in French instead of English, which was quite fascinating. Many times he needed to have instructions repeated several times as it was evident he was only hearing part of the sentence, ie deciding before listening to the complete sentence, or not noticing a negative: "Quelle fille n'est pas capable de toucher les livres?" and he would point to the girl who was obviously capable of reaching the books on the high shelf (not the girl who was reaching but couldn't touch them, nor the girl who was reading books in a chair). The evaluator said that his language comprehension was not as high in French as in English, but that was to be expected.

There were some similarities, such as not being consistent in using masculine and feminine pronouns, not conjugating verbs (there is more of that in French, where verbs change for most pronouns, but there is still some in English: I go, he goes, I do, we do, they do, he does), little past and future tenses. He tends to stick with one tense (present) and then add in time signifiers: I do that yesterday. I do that tomorrow.

Fascinatingly Chinese grammar is correct this way. The verbs are immutable and it is other little words before or after the main verb as well as time signifiers which indicate past or future: I do the dishes. I am do the dishes now. I did do the dishes yesterday. I will do the dishes tomorrow. Compare with I am doing the dishes now, I did the dishes. In English we have a bit more choice to use a past tense "I went" or adding a word to the verb: "I did go". Now if only I could say that Big Boy speaks fluent chinese and that is where he gets the lack of verb conjugasion from, but I fear not! His Chinese is the worst of his three languages.

Anyways some interesting statements from this article:

1. Does bilingualism cause language delays in children?

The short answer is no. However, this question deserves further analysis.

Vocabulary, syntactic and narrative development
Studies that have assessed bilingual children’s expressive and receptive vocabulary development by comparing combined vocabulary in L1 and L2 with the vocabularies of monolingual children found no differences between the two groups (Pearson, Fernández, Lewedeg, & Oller, 1997). Similar results were found when comparing the syntactic acquisition of young bilingual children in each language with that of monolinguals (Paradis & Genesse, 1996).

This is particularly interesting since it is directly pertinent to our situation, living in French Canada, where the dominant language in the streets is French, but the second language, English, is a high status language. ie neither language is in a risk of the child refusing it as being unimportant (unlike speaking Chinese here):

2. Are children with language and cognitive delays capable of learning two languages?

A major concern for parents of a child with language impairment is whether the addition of a second language will further delay language development and learning. Kohnert et al. (2005) state that the current belief that bilingualism is disadvantageous to children with language impairment (as compared to children with language impairment who are monolingual) is false. Because many professionals believe that the input of the second language places additional demands on a language-learning system that is already deficient, they recommend to parents that they confine their input to one language. While this approach may be well-intentioned, it can result in a child being isolated in a bilingual home in which family members communicate in a language the child cannot share. In addition, it has led to professionals failing to support the child’s home language (Thordardottir, 2002).

Studies suggest that exposing a language-delayed minority child to a second language does not negatively affect development. A study by Paraidis, Crago, Genesee & Rice (2003) found that seven year old Canadian children, who were language impaired and were exposed consistently to both French and English from birth, did not perform worse than their monolingual peers with language impairment on analyses of spontaneous language samples. It is important to note that children in this study experienced simultaneous acquisition of the two languages and that both languages had high status in the community, making the social context for bilingualism “additive” rather than “subtractive” (Lambert, 1975).

Another study compared the language abilities of children with Down syndrome being raised in bilingual homes with monolingual children with Down syndrome and found no evidence of a negative effect of the bilingualism (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, Thordardottir, Sutton & Thorpe, 2005). In this case, bilingualism was defined as “intensive, ongoing and prolonged exposure to two languages” (p. 195), one of which was English. Most of the bilingual children had French as their second language. All children had been exposed to a second language for at least 32 months (mean age was 82 months). On the English tests administered, the bilingual children scored at least as well as their monolingual counterparts.

These studies are significant in that they demonstrate that children with language impairment are capable of learning two languages at least as well as their monolingual, language-impaired peers. Therefore, professionals can reassure parents that they need not be concerned about the impact of a second language on their child with language impairment.

There is also an interesting section on whether language skills learned in one language can be transfered to another. Apparently some can, if they are pertinent, ie masculine and feminine nouns in romance languages (French, Spanish, italian), but not if they are NOT pertinent (gendered nouns in French, but not in English. Verb conjugaisons in French but not in Chinese). This is interesting from a speech therapy point of view for Big Boy. Will speech therapy in French benefit him if he is lacking apostrophe S possessives in English? Unlikely. But it is likely to help with all those little filler words in French, and maybe English too. He is so likely to say “Car” instead of “it’s a car”… comprehensible but not full sentences.

There is also a section on the role of the speech therapist in valorising the home language. That would be especially pertinent in cases where a minority language is spoken at home which is not sustained in school or the outside world. I am still in a quandry what to do about the advice of speech therapists who suggest that I should ONLY speak English with Big Boy as it is the language I am most comfortable with, have the best grammar, richest vocabulary and use (idioms, metaphors etc).

Since French is spoken in the broader society here, I function in French both within the home in my home office (with clients), within the home with francophone friends (including Big Boy’s little friends who are French), outside the home with neighbors and friends, and in public dealing with all service personnel, whether cashiers, waiters, mailman, daycare workers etc… It would be exceedingly artificial for me to be speaking English only with Big Boy in these situations. And indeed be alienating to those we interact with who may be monolingual francophone.

Indeed I wish to model for him the correct FRENCH behaviour in requesting aid, addressing friends and neighbors, completing transactions in shops etc. And given that French is mandated by law here as the language of businesses, education etc, and given that French is an endangered language in the country and continent, there is a lot of social and political negative weight to speaking English in public, or with francophones, and for modelling this “outside-Quebec-majority-language” with my small son. There is something intrinsically VERY different from insisting on speaking Tagalog for instance, with my child while at home and in public, to insist on it against the onslaught of the majority language, and insisting on speaking English, the “taking-over-the-world default colonial” language.

So, I take with a grain of salt the recommendations of the speech therapist today, to speak only English with Big Boy, and leave the FRench 100% to the daycare to nourish with him. I will continue to read books in English and French (and Chinese as much as he will allow me), to encourage him to watch French dvds within the home, and to give him French vocabulary as we navigate in public, with friends and on the way to daycare. I find it is so important as we go to daycare, that on the way I discuss with him the highlights of the previous day, new toy acquisitions, anticipated travels etc, IN FRENCH. So that upon arrival, he will not have this abrupt transition to another language, and be lost if they ask him to say “what did you do yesterday? What’s up with you?”

I want him to have the words to say “J’ai été voir les papillons au jardin botanique” or “J’irai voir grandmama à Vancouver. J’irais en mois de juin avec maman en avion” or “J’ai réçu un nouveau jouet, une voiture de police, hier”, and not just be stuck with only English words and thoughts when they ask him in French.

So, we’ll see how it goes. Anyways, I recommend the article at hanen.org whether you have a monolingual child and are thinking of second language classes, whether you are in a bilingual environment with a speech-delayed child, or whether you speak a minority language at home.

ps, thanks so much to everyone who left a comment on my “flabbergasted” post! I still am amazed at 1400 comments on a blog entry about what a pioneer mom wears out on a date with her hubby! LOL!

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3 responses to “Language delays and Bilingualism

  1. Interesting. You definitely have a challenge keeping up with a trilingual child. That he needs French and English is obvious. Hopefully as he grows older he’ll learn to appreciate your keeping his native Chinese, too. I admire how hard you’re working to keep up. Now that you’ve been a mom for a while, are you feeling a bit more comfortable in the job?

  2. Pingback: What jobs are available to Speech Therapy grads who have not yet gotten a Master’s degree? Any at all? | Speech Therapy Resources

  3. Hey, this was a really interesting read! I think you’re right to sort of continue on with what you’re already doing–you have your reasons! I was talking with a friend about how many kids with language delays end up not speaking normally as adults–which, it seems, is just not very many! And I think it’s smart to set his transitions up like that. I would appreciate it if it were me…
    If you don’t mind, could I pick your brain about living in Montreal? We’re trying to figure out where to look for houses and schools based on where my husband’s office would be (Rue St-Antoine Est, I believe–it’s near a bridge that goes over to Ile Sainte Hélène) and could use some guidance… (We think they’re going to make him an offer soon, but nothing for sure quite yet.) Anyway, I have a number of questions, and I don’t want to fill your blog up with them…

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