What are some myths about dual language development?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, Second Edition.

About the authors

Dr. Johanne Paradis

Johanne Paradis, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Alberta. In addition to her professional experience as a university professor, she taught English as a second language for 10 years.

Dr. Paradis has researched the language development of French-English bilingual children, both those with typical development and those with language impairment. She has also carried out extensive research on children from minority language backgrounds learning English as a second language.

Dr. Paradis is currently developing a web site—the Child English Second Language Centre—which consists of resources to assist in more effective assessment and identification of language impairment in dual language children.

Dr. Fred Genesee

Fred Genesee, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. He has carried out extensive research on alternative approaches to bilingual education. His work has documented the longitudinal language development and academic achievement of students educated in their home language and another language.

Dr. Genesee is currently conducting research on individual differences in reading and language development in second language immersion programs in order to identify predictors of risk for reading and/or language disability in second language learners. He is also interested in simultaneous acquisition of two languages during early infancy and childhood.

Dr. Genesee's most recent research interests include internationally adopted children. This research focuses on the short- and long-term language development of adoptees from China and on what this can tell us about the effects of very early delays in exposure to a language on its acquisition.

Dr. Martha B. Crago

Martha B. Crago, Ph.D., is the Vice President of Research at Dalhouisie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has worked as a speech-language pathologist as well as a professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University.

Dr. Crago's research has focused on cross-linguistic and cross-cultural studies of the acquisition of Inuktitut, French, English, and Arabic across a variety of learners, including bilingual children as well as children with language impairments.

Dr. Crago is editor of Applied Psycholinguistics, and is Vice President of the International Association of Child Language.


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Q: The new edition of your textbook Dual Language Development and Disorders updates us with the latest research and guidance on best practices in working with dual language learners. Who are dual language learners?

A: "Dual language learners" is a term we use for children who know and use two languages. It includes children who have learned two languages at home from birth, children who learned a first language and then were introduced to a second language at school, and all other possibilities in between. So, it includes early simultaneous bilinguals as well as second language learners.

In the book we discuss the results of research on a wide variety of dual language learners:

(1) those who speak two languages that are widely-spoken and high status in the community, and those for whom one language is a minority language;

(2) those who come from migrant families and those whose families have resided for generations in their area;

(3) those who belong to a minority ethno-cultural community and those who belong to the mainstream community;

(4) those who learn a minority language at school, as in immersion programs, and those who learn the majority societal language at school, for example, English second language learners; and

(5) internationally-adopted children.

Q: What changes relating to dual language learners have SLPs and educators seen in the classroom and schools since your first edition published?

A: It is our impression that there is growing and overt concern for providing intervention and differentiated instruction for dual language learners with special needs, and for developing more appropriate assessment techniques for identifying language and learning disabilities in this population of children. This impression comes from the increasing number of invitations for us to speak and write on these topics.

Also, since the first edition of our book, there has been an enormous amount of new research on dual language learners and disorders. Therefore, in the second edition, we have been able to draw on a stronger and richer knowledge base in order to recommend evidence-based practices.

Q: What are some myths about dual language development?

A: Both parents and professionals alike are often concerned that early dual language development will cause confusion or delay, and is therefore not recommended for young children. The evidence we discuss in our book dispels these myths; bilingual children have the capacity to differentiate their two languages, and to acquire them in the same general timeframe as monolinguals.

Bilingual children have some unique developmental patterns, and their rates of development may vary between their two languages and be slightly different from monolinguals for very particular linguistic structures, but these differences with monolinguals should not warrant concern, and need to be better understood. In other words, bilingual is just a different kind of normal from monolingual.

Another very common myth about dual language children concerns second language learners. It is often believed that children who enter kindergarten not speaking or understanding much English will learn English very quickly—"soak it up like a sponge"—and rapidly become English speakers on a par with their monolingual peers.

There is a great deal of research evidence that shows children do not acquire equivalent second language skills to monolinguals very rapidly; to the contrary, it can take between 3 to 5 years. We believed that it was very important to dispel this myth in the book because often educators and clinicians have inappropriate expectations of the second language abilities of young children.

A related myth about second language learners is that children who come to school speaking a language other than the language of instruction will learn the majority/school language more quickly and better if they discontinue use and acquisition of the home language. The myth is that maintenance of a home language interferes with and impedes acquisition of a majority language in the context of schooling. However, there is growing and compelling evidence that maintenance of the home language can actually facilitate second language learning.

Q: What is important for professionals to understand about "code mixing"?

A: Code-mixing—the use of words and phrases from two languages together in one sentence —is often viewed negatively as if it signals incompetence or confusion on the part of bilingual speaker. On the contrary, research has shown us that code-mixing by adult bilingual speakers is a very skillful use of language—it serves complex socio-pragmatic purposes and there are rules governing how sentences are formed when combining words from both languages.

When it comes to children, the research shows that even in the preschool years, young bilingual children's code-mixing is not random and that it does not reflect an inability to separate their languages. Young bilingual children might code-mix when speaking one language because they only know a certain word in the other language—because they have a lexical gap. Nevertheless, they have a great deal of sensitivity to the language preferences of the adults they are speaking with, and furthermore, the linguistic structure of their code-mixing shows they are following the rules for combining their two languages from as early as two and half years old.

All of this means that professionals need to realize that code-mixing is a natural and expected part of bilingual development; that it is actually a linguistic and communicative resource, and it should not to be sanctioned or viewed as a sign of language learning difficulties.

Q: How can a professional recognize when a language delay is the result of an actual disorder?

A: First, it is essential to highlight the fact that bilingualism does not put children at risk for language disorders. So, bilingualism is not a cause of language disorder and bilingualism does not typically result in pervasive and clinically significant delays in language development when the bilingual child has had substantial exposure to both languages.

The characteristics of language disorder in dual language children are essentially the same as they are in monolingual children. That being said, identification of language disorder in dual language children is more complex than in monolingual children for a variety of reasons

  • the inability to test a child fully in both languages

  • a child having more advanced development in one language than the other—especially in the case of second language learners

  • lack of test materials standardized and normed on bilinguals and with culturally sensitive testing formats, and so on.

There is no "quick fix" to overcoming these barriers to recognizing when a dual language child actually has a language disorder.

However, in the book, we put forward some strategies for overcoming these barriers in order to arrive at more accurate assessments and identification of language disorders in dual language children. These strategies include

  • use of parent report

  • dynamic assessment techniques

  • use of alternative norms

  • greater emphasis on measures of language learning and processing over measures of accumulated language knowledge

  • and more.

Q: It has been estimated that up to 20% of the school-age population may be affected by a reading impairment. What are some signs of a reading impairment?

A: In the book we identify the following characteristics of children who might have a reading impairment:

  • poor knowledge of the sounds and names of the letters of the alphabet

  • performance on standardized tests that falls more than 1.5 standard deviations below age/grade norms

  • difficulty mapping sounds onto letters when reading, and letters onto sounds when writing

  • slow progress in learning to read words " slow and labored reading of words, sentences, and text

  • low levels of accuracy when reading common and uncommon words, sentences, and text-length text

  • reliance on context (including pictures) to figure out the meaning of words or text

  • lack of strategies for figuring out how to read and understand new words

  • poor understanding of what is read, literally as well as interpretively—that is, determining what are the causes, consequences, and implications of what is read

  • poor ability to relate what is read to one's own experiences

  • related problems in spelling and writing

Q: Are there significant differences between reading impairment in a second-language learner and a child learning a single language?

A: Many of the behaviors exhibited by second-language and first-language children with reading impairment are often the same, as noted above. The differences lie in the possible reasons why second-language learners might be having difficulty learning to read; these differences include:

  • they draw on skills and knowledge from the native language to help them learn to read in English;

  • they are still in the process of acquiring oral proficiency in English and, thus, may not have the requisite oral language competencies to read and comprehend academic text; and

  • they have cultural backgrounds and experiences that differ from mainstream children and from the culture assumed by textbook writers—as a result, they might have difficulty reading and understanding text because the cultural content is unfamiliar to them.

Q: The new edition of your book includes a chapter on internationally adopted children. What are some unique barriers to language development in internationally adopted children and how can those be minimized?

A: Adoptive families usually provide enriched environments that support adopted children's acquisition of their new language. This is the case because adopted children are often adopted by families with relatively high socio-economic status, high levels of education, and they may be single children—all conditions that favor language learning in young children.

Any barriers they face in acquiring the new language are likely due to pre-adoption adversity or impoverishment which is associated with orphanage or foster care facilities that provide less than optimal conditions for early development. However, not all adopted children experience adverse or impoverished care pre-adoptively; nor do they experience impoverishment or adversity to the same extent. As a result, adopted children's prospects for successful acquisition of the new language need to be judged on a case-by-case basis.

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