If a Child Is Autistic, Should a Multilingual Family Switch to One Language?

by Corey · 0 comments

My husband and I live in Manchester, England and have a 2.5 year old daughter.  I’m Russian and my husband is Turkish, neither of us speak each other’s language fluently, so speak English together.

When our daughter was born, I kept on talking to her in Russian, and my husband is talking to her in Turkish, and we still do. And she also hears us talking English to each other and from outside.

The reason why I’m writing to you today is because it is suspected that our daughter is borderline autistic. We are still hoping that she is not, but there are signs that perhaps she may be. She still doesn’t speak anything except her own language.

We were told to cut down to one language. At this stage we find it quite difficult to do that, we really think that if we switch to English now, that would shock and confuse her. What would you suggest that we do?

— Lena

Dear Lena,

You are right that switching to only one language in a naturally multilingual environment will have undesirable consequences for a child. It would only create a new problem for your daughter, not solve the one that she may have.

Autism is a neural development disorder, which affects socio-cognitive behaviour. Autistic people engage socially in different ways from typical people, and learn differently too.

Since language is a socio-cognitive tool, that is, our means of acquiring knowledge, of socialisation and of expression, autism is typically reflected in language. This means two things: first, that the language ability of autistic people is affected because they are autistic; and second, that autism will affect all the languages of an individual, whether one or more than one.

Children do not recover from autism, and neither does autism worsen, because of the number of languages that they use.

The recommendation to switch to one language is based on the myth that monolingualism is the “normal” linguistic state of humankind. This is wrong both statistically and historically: multilinguals outnumber monolinguals worldwide, and multilingualism has been a fact ever since human beings started moving around. Being multilingual is as typical as being monolingual, and has therefore absolutely nothing to do with clinical conditions, autism included.

If your daughter comes to be diagnosed with autism, do go on using your home languages with her as usual. Whether she is autistic or not, she will go on needing all the support that you have used her to since she was born, and this means supporting her through the languages that you have so far used her to.

Feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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