Bilingual is Better

The following question was sent by Liz Guzman. You can also send your question to the Experts by clicking here.

My son has had speech therapy since he was 3 and was recently “diagnosed” by the school psychologist as having PDD-NOS. He was accepted in a dual language program and is mostly an English speaker. My question is, being in this program would it be beneficial or detrimental to his learning? I was told like most people that I was confusing him when I was speaking to him in Spanish as a baby and stopped it and started to speak only in English. I feel it would be beneficial to him to learn another language, but also feel uneasy about setting him back in his academics. The school told me he did not qualify due to his speech delay. Is there any research suggesting my child should not be in this program? Thanks for your help!

Liz Guzmán

Dear Liz,

The research that exists on children who are bilingual who have speech and language impairments focuses on circumstantial bilinguals.  Circumstantial bilinguals are those whose life circumstances require them to hear (and use) two languages and the literature indicates that it is not detrimental for children with speech and language delays to learn two languages in a bilingual environment. Bilingual children who have speech and language impairments typically demonstrate similar deficits across both of their languages.  For example, those who have difficulty with word endings generally have difficulty with word endings in both languages, with some variation resulting from the differences in the languages.  This does not mean that they are unable to communicate in both languages or that they are confused because they are hearing two languages.

Elective bilinguals, in contrast to circumstantial bilinguals, are those who decide to learn a second language and who seek out an environment that is bilingual.  Many families are electing to put their children in dual language programs to give them an opportunity to be bilingual.  The research on bilingual children with language impairments has not focused on this population, though I suspect we will start to see more research on this topic with the advent of so many dual language programs.

Ultimately, you and the educators at your son’s school will need to collaborate to decide what the best placement is for your son. I think the biggest thing to consider is how much support you can provide for your son in an elective bilingual environment.  If you have a high level of proficiency in both languages and can support your child in a bilingual program, it will likely be more successful than if you cannot provide that support.

Another thing to consider is what level of language your son has?  There is a large range of language skills in children with PDD-NOS.  Some children learn language easily and generalize the rules of language with ease.  Other children struggle with the rules of languages.  An elective bilingual program will be easier for the student who easily learns the rules of language.

The structure of the program is also an important thing to consider.  Many dual language programs have one day in Spanish and one day in English, while others split the day in half, and still others switch by class.  Does your son make transitions easily?  You will want to consider how many times in a day your son will need to transition from one language to the other and whether you think he will be able to do that successfully.

Another variable in program structure is the percent of time each language is spoken.  Some programs start with a high percentage of Spanish, such as 80% and then gradually add more English.  Ask what the plan is for your program and consider whether the structure will work for your child.

I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,

Ellen Kester

Ellen Stubbe Kester, Ph.D, CCS-LLP – A bilingual (English/Spanish) speech language professional who earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She is the President of Bilinguistics, which is “dedicated to enhancing speech and language services for Spanish-English bilingual children, enabling those children to achieve their highest communicative and academic potential.” You can read her answers here.

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