When my first child was born, I was immediately warned that I shouldn’t expose a child with special needs to two languages. The reasons were that:
— Their speech development will slow down from trying to learn two languages
— Their brains don’t have the capacity to make the switch from one language to another
— They are already challenged with the disability, so I shouldn’t add an unnecessary challenge to their lives
I immigrated to this country just weeks before my first son was born. Although I had a college degree in English, I was still in the process of adjusting and improving my English when all this happened. Actually, eight years later, I’m still learning.
It’s common to hear that kids get confused when they are exposed to two languages at the same time. So just imagine how complicated it is to decide to raise children with special needs bilingually, especially when you’re surrounded by people who don’t believe in bilingualism.
Down syndrome is the most common genetic disorder in the world, but the high incidence doesn’t make it any easier to make decisions on how to educate your child and what to expect from him. Raising him bilingual was a must for me, but an impossible fantasy for the specialists.
But fantasies can come true!
I never stopped speaking in Spanish to my child. Spanish became his first language, so by the age of 1 his first words obviously came in Spanish.
His speech was evaluated at the age of 18 months and the outcome was very poor. One more time, the speech therapist reminded me of her warning to only speak English at home. I didn’t give up but she did, telling me that she didn’t have the tools or knowledge to provide therapy to a child who was being raised bilingual.
I knew I was doing the right thing and that his speech was progressing. My decision wasn’t the real problem; it was instead the lack of resources in my community. Many times we were rejected at therapy centers for not speaking English at home.
But my question was still the same: Why do I have to speak only English to my child and forfeit his right to be bilingual? Giving a child more opportunities to learn is not hurting him; it is opening his world to new challenges that will make him grow and succeed, regardless of his abilities.
School Readiness At 3-Years-Old
As with many children with special needs, my son started school at the age of three. Since the very first day, he understood and followed along in class with no problems. His teachers didn’t speak Spanish and he never had problems understanding English. That’s the time when, as a parent, you realize you are not making a mistake, and that communication is something much bigger than language.
The more you expect from your child, the more you will get from him. It’s not about pushing him to do the impossible, but empowering him to go through the natural experience of learning. For children of bilingual families, being bilingual is natural.
My second child was born when my son was almost ready to start school. She was also born with Down syndrome. At that time, I didn’t have doubts about how to raise her. I was sure she would be bilingual. In her favor, she was born in an established family with an experienced mother, so her bilingual development was outstanding since the beginning.
She learned all her words in English and Spanish. The interaction with her brother was the best stimulation and the best connection with English, as were community activities such as going to the park or library as well as the daily exposure when doing typical activities in our neighborhood. By the time she started school, her integration was smooth and easy.
Today, Emir is 8 and Ayelen is 5. Both are still in the process of learning to talk and they are doing great. They speak English, Spanish and sometimes, Spanglish. The most amazing thing is that they know exactly where to use each of them. They communicate at school only in English and at home they use both.
If you are raising a bilingual child with special needs, my best advice is:
— Take it easy and give him time to process and start showing progress
— Understand that you can’t force him to speak Spanish, as his brain will probably pick the easier word, either in English or Spanish
— The main goal is still to improve his communication, and this may be a life-long task that you have to enjoy and celebrate
— The best way to enjoy teaching bilingualism is to keep speaking, reading and interacting with your children in Spanish
Assuming the challenge of raising bilingual kids with special needs is a worthy adventure.