Does Multilingualism Cause Language Disorders in Children?

by Corey · 0 comments

Bilingualism in a family neither increases nor reduces the chance of experiencing language difficulties and language disorders.  The bilingual child may, for example, be diagnosed as dyslexic, aphasic, partially hearing or with a low IQ score.  Hopefully, the specialist making the diagnosis will have both experience with bilingual children and have studied bilingualism in professional training.  If so, the diagnosis will include an assurance that bilingualism is typically not the cause of the problem.

The communicative differences of language minority children must be distinguished from communicative disorders.  Bilingual children are different from monolingual children in their language experience.  For example, when a child is learning a second language, some temporary incorrectness is to be expected.  It is not a sign of language disorder.

Language disorders include specific items that are separate from the temporary lags and inaccuracies sometimes observed in bilinguals.  Examples of symptoms of language disorders are: great difficulty in producing certain sounds; a considerable lack of understanding (or use) of familiar words; great difficulty in remembering new words despite a great deal of exposure to them; great difficulty in expressing needs and wants without use of gestures.

Such problems are too quickly attributed to bilingualism, partly because bilinguals are ‘different’.  Research tells us a very different story.  Bilingualism will coexist with, but will not be the primary cause of such problems.

Even when parents and professionals accept that bilingualism is not the cause of a child’s problem, moving from bilingualism to monolingualism is seen by some as a way to help improve the problem.  The reasoning is usually that the ‘extra demands’ of bilingualism, if removed, will lighten the burden for the child.  While the cause of the problem is not addressed (often because the cause is unknown), one part of the context (i.e. bilingualism) where the problem occurs is changed to attempt a solution.  Is this right?

Above excerpt is from the new third edition of A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide, by Colin Baker, pp. 88-89.  Published by Multilingual Matters, 2007.

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