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Bilingualism and Developmental Issues
Parents of bilingual children usually keep rather close tabs on the speech development of their children. If something seems to be outside the (rather arbitrary) confines of 'normal,' the first question always seems to be "Should we revert to only one language?" In most cases the answer is a hearty "No," since bilingualism in its own right does not in any way harm normal speech development. Still, it is worth highlighting the more common questions and warning signs:

Hearing

Babies with hearing loss stop babbling at around 6 months. If your child isn't making any sounds, contact your pediatrician right away. Children suffering from impaired hearing will continue to babble, but when they start talking the words are usually incomplete or distorted. Hearing problems are easily detected at a regular doctor's visit, but it is paramount that they be treated immediately in order for speech to develop normally. There is no need whatsoever to discontinue bilingualism.

Late talkers

Although some kids say their first words at 9 months, many will wait until they're well over two years old. If your child isn't saying any words by the age of two, or you still can't understand a word she's saying, discuss it with your child's doctor at the 24-month checkup. If nothing happens within the following 4 months, consult a specialized speech pathologist. It is highly unlikely that bilingualism is at fault, but speech therapy can help her accelerate both languages. Remember that the race is long, and she too will start talking eventually -- just as late walkers at some point do take their first step.

Stuttering

Toddlers sometimes stutter because they're so excited to tell you what's on their minds and they can't get the words out fast enough. In most cases, this is a normal developmental phase. Actually, stutter often goes on for a few weeks, and then disappears by itself, only to reappear maybe six months later, and then disappear again. However -- and this is important -- multilingualism does not contribute to stuttering. The reasons for stuttering are more complex, related to such factors as genetics and temperament, rather than to the number of languages.

Stuttering typically works itself out over time, but many of us know or have met an adult who stutters, where it obviously did not disappear by itself. So, if the stuttering seems to persist in your child, do consult someone specialized in speech fluency disorders. Stuttering is relatively easy to treat, particularly if caught early. At home, the best way forward is to allow your child to finish his sentences, and avoid jumping in to help him along.

Special needs children

If your child has a developmental issue like Autism or Down's Syndrome, the proficiency may be affected, but stopping multilingual upbringing is not always necessary. Each case is highly individual, so consult a specialist to assess your child's particular condition. Sharon Smith, a mother of two in Boston and teacher for special needs children for 20 years, shares her experience:

"My 9 year old daughter has a central auditory processing disorder. It does make language learning more challenging, but she has still succeeded in learning Mandarin, Tibetan, and Spanish, in addition to English. And I think that learning more than one language has actually helped my daughter to 'exercise' and develop the parts of her brain that affect her ability to hear, understand, and generate language. Her deficits nowadays are very subtle and most people do not notice she has such a disorder.

When the problem are severe, such as autism or retardation, I have seen parents delay the second language instruction to ensure at least some language fluency can be achieved in the child's main language, but then a foreign language has been added without harm -- often with great success in both languages. I have noticed that given enough exposure, most special needs children tend to achieve similar levels of fluency in both languages over time."

And indeed, in regards to children with special needs, latest research has actually shown that teaching a foreign language to a child with linguistics-related issues helps that child to gain strength in the first language.

Before such research showed the benefits of multilingualism in linguistically- challenged children (motor, neurologically, auditory, etc.), it was believed that literacy in the first language was necessary before a second language could be introduced. Now, we see that the neurological exercise that your child is gets from learning other languages actually strengthens the synaptic connections relevant to linguistic learning and production.


How to evaluate your own situation

Here are a few factors to take into consideration when some challenge in your child's language development forces you to evaluate whether or not to continue raising your child bilingually:

  • Exactly how does this situation impact your child's speech development?
  • How severe is it?
  • What is your goal with multilingualism?
  • What is the recommendation from a clinical expert? Is that expert experienced with multilingualism?
  • What is the family situation? Here are some examples: Are there other siblings who are already multilingual? If so, what are their ages? It may be worth continuing the multilingualism, but make some exceptions for the youngest. Do you want to have more children and raise them multilingually? Then it may be worth aiming for passive multilingualism in the first child so that when you speak the minority language to your second, the oldest will at least understand. Are you an expat anticipating a move back? If so, you may also consider keeping the future majority language as active as possible to help the transition when you move back.

For each of the different situations, you'll have to adapt. Remember that dropping the foreign language(s) in a panicked reaction to any challenge is short-changing both yourself and you child. It's better to continue with the different languages and see how things develop. You can always revert to one language down the line, but the reclaiming one will be far more difficult.


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