There are many benefits to raising a child to become bilingual, including cognitive advantages, linguistics advantages and also improved social skills. Not only this, but bilingual children are better at learning new words, utilising information in new ways, listening and connecting with others. Children aren’t the only age group who reap the rewards of being a bilingual; research in bilingual adults has revealed that they have a higher cognitive reserve which can delay the onset of dementia for quite a few years (Bialystok, 2012). These are just a few benefits of being bilingual, and the list of advantages continues to grow as the amount of research into this fascinating area is increasing.
As a speech and language therapist, I recommend that parents teach their child to be bilingual where practical and possible, for example if one or more parents can speak a ‘minority’ language. However, a question that does not get discussed enough is, what if our child has speech and language difficulties and we choose not to raise him/her as a bilingual child? Should parents give up the task so as to not ‘overload’ the child?
We may have some understanding already of why we should speak our native/minority language to our child, but what happens if we don’t continue doing this once we discover our child has speech and/or language difficulties? What are the disadvantages, if there are any, if the parent chooses to speak the only the majority language e.g. English?
As a working parent and a professional, I still come across many harmful myths that continue to spread. Long gone is the belief that speaking another language can ‘confuse’ a child and so it is better to speak the one language. These days more people understand that bilingualism does not cause language delays. Yet one damaging piece of incorrect advice given from time to time that still needs addressing, is that parents should only use one language (the majority language) with their child with speech and language difficulties.
When parents decide to speak English only (the majority) language to their bilingual child with language disorders, parents usually choose to do this believing that they are doing what is best for their child. However, if a child has speech or language problems then the bilingual child will reveal difficulties in both languages (Kohner, 2010). Research reveals that learning another language does not cause speech or language difficulties or exacerbate these difficulties what so ever. Choosing the majority language over the minority/native language at home during this sensitive period of language acquisition can limit the child’s overall language ability. Language outcomes are then poorer in comparison to those bilingual language impaired children whose native language continued to be supported at home (Ijalba, 2010).
However, when a parent chooses not to speak to their child using the minority/native language (usually believing that this is the only option or by doing this they are doing what is best for their child) then this can have some devastating consequences. Some studies report parents experiencing psychosocial difficulties if parents for instance, decided to speak only English to their child with ASD (Fernandez y Garccia et al., 2012). These feelings include a sense of loss, sadness, discomfort and even talking less to their child because it felt less natural speaking the majority language to them (Bird, Genesee, Verhoeven, 2016). It is important to note that in one study, immigrant parents when using their native/minority language with their child with autism, were found to be more affective and engaging (Wharton et al., 2000) then those who did not use their native/minority language (Kremer-Sadlik, 2005). Those not using the native/minority language of course often can exacerbate the child’s difficulties even more, especially when the child is dependent on the adult’s support with their communication skills.
Understanding the findings of the studies inform us that parents of bilingual children need to be supported and encouraged to speak the native/minority language in the home environment if they wish to and are able to, rather than embracing English only practices. By doing so, it is then doing what’s best for both bilingual children and their families.