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Supporting Two Languages in Bilingual Children with Primary Developmental Language Disorders

Supporting Two Languages in Bilingual Children with Primary Developmental Language Disorders

Kathryn Kohnert, Kathryn Kohnert

August 6, 2007
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* This article is an excerpt from Language Disorders in Bilingual Children and Adults (Kohnert, 2007). It is shared with permission of Plural Publishing.

Issues in Supporting Two Languages

The starting point of this article is the assertion that it is important to support home as well as school and community languages in children with primary language disorders (LD) in order to achieve life-long goals of academic and vocational achievement along with social, emotional, and communicative health. For dual-language learners, this means taking action that supports the development of two different languages. The validity of this assertion is worth exploring, as it would certainly be easier to focus exclusively on one language, particularly when it is the majority language of the school and broader community and a language in which speech-language pathologists are proficient and resources abound.

The assertion to support two languages in children with LD has historically been met with considerable skepticism among professionals and, in some cases, even the child's family. This skepticism is couched in the "yes-but" statement that usually begins with an acknowledgment, "Yes, bilingualism is fine for typically developing children" followed by "but this child has LD." The reasoning is that if one language is hard for the child (as is clearly the case for children with LD), two languages will be harder and exceed his or her language-learning capacities. The recommendation that follows from this line of reasoning is to consolidate the child's resources, reduce demands, and scale back to a single language. For minority language learners, the further recommendation may be to use only the majority language with the child to increase his or her chances of receiving appropriate services and educational advancement.

There are several problems with this recommendation. First, by definition, changing the language of input (from Spanish to English) or even the number of languages in the input (from two to one) will not cure or even improve the child's underlying difficulty with language. Monolingualism is not a cure for bilingual LD. The recommendation to stick to only a single language for bilingual children with LD takes language out of its social context and ignores its fundamental role as a communicative tool. Such a single language recommendation is at odds with primary tenets of the Dynamic Interactive Processing perspective of language (Kohnert, 2007) in that it considers language and communicative proficiency to be finite resources in children with LD rather than a dynamical system that can be expanded with rich input and diverse opportunities for learning and use.

Second, evidence with simultaneous bilinguals suggests that dual-language learners with LD are not at a greater disadvantage than their monolingual peers, all else being equal. Children with primary LD can learn two languages, as can children with Down syndrome or hearing impairment (Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2005; Waltzman, Robbins, Green, Cohen, 2003). Monolingual children with LD learn language, although at a slower pace and perhaps not to the same level as their unaffected peers. Similarly, bilingual children learn two languages, at a slower pace and perhaps not to the same level as their typical bilingual peers, but apparently to the same level as their monolingual peers with LD if given similar opportunities. Advocates of bilingual support are clear in their understanding that children with LD can learn two languages, although by definition not with the same facility as their peers who do not have LD.

A third problem with the recommendation to move forward in only a single language for dual-language learners with LD is the presumption that bilingualism is always a conscious choice. In many cases, bilingualism is not a choice but rather a description of very natural and common life circumstances not necessarily bad or good but rather quite simply the way things are. Inherent in these life circumstances is the fundamental need for two languages for communicative success in different environments, with different partners, for different purposes. Intervention success is determined relative to environmental demands including the ability to generalize specific communicative gains across settings and partners. Being "monolingual" in a bilingual family or community exacerbates a weakness, turning a disability into a handicap (Kohnert & Derr, 2004). By definition, intervention "success" for bilinguals requires access to two languages. Planning for gains in both languages allows the child with LD to take full advantage of previous experiences with language as well as to increase the number of opportunities to use language for meaningful interactions (cf., Gutierrez-Clellen, 1999). In contrast, discounting one of the child's languages limits his or her resources, negates previous communicative experiences, and denies future opportunities.

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kathryn kohnert

Kathryn Kohnert


kathryn kohnert

Kathryn Kohnert



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