October 23, 2019
by Mary Pat
1 Comment

The surprising way to support your child’s second language development

You speak two languages at home. One of them is a home language like Polish which both you and your partner speak. The other one is a community language like English. You feel most comfortable speaking with your children in your home language and you’re committed to keeping Polish going. You’re a little worried about how your child will manage with English at pre-school and later on, in school. And you wonder what you can do to help. Here’s one thing surprising you can do to help both languages along without having to sacrifice your home language or start speaking more English. It’s called vocabulary bridging. What’s it all about? Keep reading to find out.


First of all, vocabulary is really important for your child’s reading success. Reading success is linked with academic success. (You can read more about vocabulary in multilingual children here.) We have two vocabulary storehouses that are connected.


Vocabulary storehouses

# 1 is a concept store like the idea or concept of a dog. The concept store will have mental images, features of dogs like tails and hair and other categories like friendly dogs, big dogs, small dogs, and so on.


# 2 is a label store which contains the labels for the corresponding concepts. So dog in English and pies in Polish. When your child speaks two or more languages, a concept can be linked to more than one label. When your child is learning words, they’re making links between the concepts in general and the labels in each language. If your Polish-speaking child is learning English as their additional language and after they’ve learned Polish, the connection between the concept and the English label is initially weaker than the connection between the concept and the Polish label.  The good news is that you can use Polish to help their learning of English. You can use the stronger language (Polish in this example) to facilitate learning in English when it’s the less developed language. It’s important to remember that Continued L1 development is critical for children’s academic, social, and cognitive growth as well as for their cultural identity.” (Restrepo and colleagues 2010: 10)


For example, we spoke English at home when I was a child even though my mother could speak Irish. Then at school I learned Irish, Latin, and French all through English, my dominant language. Using my stronger language made it much easier to learn the other languages as I already had a structure to build onto. Like ivy growing on a house. After studying English for more than two years, children may not need this bridging as they begin to develop concepts and labels links more independently in each language. Your child relies on their home language to help them learn the school language in their first 2-3 years of learning it although the languages always remain connected.


What this means is, that if you suspect your child knows the concept/idea in Polish, you can use Polish to bridge the gap between the two languages to learn the label in English. You can talk to them in Polish about the English label. You can talk about how the languages differ in their grammar. For me, I do this with my daughter and comment on how in Irish, the verb comes at the start of the sentence and how in English, it generally comes after the subject. Here’s a really interesting article about how this language bridging can be done in pre-schools.  You could try some of the ideas at home too keep having conversations in your home language about the similarities and differences between your languages. (Because Irish is an endangered language bridging won’t necessarily be relevant for you if your home language is Irish.)


A 2014 study in Florida involving pre-school children learning Spanish and then English,  looked at two ways of developing vocabulary. One way was where children listened to storybooks read by an adult in English only and with no explanations of the vocabulary. In the other group, the children listened to the story in English and also received rich explanations of vocabulary in Spanish, their stronger language. What did they find? Where children got the rich vocabulary explanations in their stronger language plus listening to the story being read, they tended to make greater gains in understanding vocabulary than when it was just the adult reading the story repeatedly. There’s plenty of research supporting the practice of continual input in your home language both to maintain home language skills and build the second language.  


Another study in the US looked at vocabulary bridging in children who spoke Spanish and were starting to learn English in preschool. They put the children into two groups. Group 1 had two weeks of extra English vocabulary definitions when being read to in English. Group 2 had two weeks of extra Spanish vocabulary definitions when being read to in English. What happened? The children who had basic Spanish at the start and less developed English showed growth in labelling, vocabulary understanding and ability to define what words meant. Embedding explanations during shared reading was beneficial whether it was done in Spanish or in English. But when it was done in Spanish, that led to greater gains in the children’s ability to define or explain words.  Children with lower skills in both languages at the outset, made fewer gains in both groups than children who had stronger home language skills to begin with. (Read this for more tips on how to build your child’s vocabulary.)


Let’s say your child has an English book from school or the library. . (I’ll show you what this would look like in a minute).

So you’ve borrowed a book from the library that is in English. Maybe you’ve seen it at the pre-school and decide to borrow it. And you’re comfortable reading together in English some of the time. You can help your child’s language development in both languages by reading the book in English and giving explanations of words and events in the story in Polish.


You read the book aloud with your child. Then you use the book as a prop to have a conversation in Polish. You talk about the pictures in Polish, drawing their attention to things like facial expressions, the size of characters, the location where the story is happening. All in your home language.


Elaborated exposure is where you explain what the words mean, do some role play, or use gestures to explain the meaning. You can talk about words that mean almost the same thing like seat and chair. It also helps your child to learn the words and concepts if they can act out the meaning of the words when possible. Re-enacting the story together is a great way to do this. We used to use a red tea towel for Little Red Riding Hood’s cape and a little toy basket with toy food when my little girl was in preschool. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. When you encounter the words in other situations outside of reading together, be sure and talk to your child about them in your home language. Children generally love reading the same story over and over and while it might get on your nerves, it’s actually good for their vocabulary development to have repeated exposure to the words.


You can take things to another level by drawing their attention to words that sound similar in both languages. (These are called vocabulary cognates.) Like computer in English and computadora in Spanish.


Remember that understanding words tends to come before using them so it may be a while before your child uses the new vocabulary and that’s the way it goes.


Another effective way to build your child’s vocabulary is through dialogic book reading and you can read all about that in my next post. Be sure you’ve signed up so you’ll get an email to let you know it’s ready.


Let’s get talking!



What I read so you don’t have to….


Leacox, L. & Wood Jackson, C. (2014). Spanish vocabulary-bridging technology-enhanced instruction for young English language learners’ word learning. Journal of Early Child Literacy 14(2): 175-197.


Lugo-Neris, M., Wood Jackons, C., and Goldsten, H. (2010). Facilitating vocabulary acquisition of young English language learners. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 41: 314-327.


Restrepo, A., Castilla, A., Schwanenflugel, P., Neiharth-Pritchett, S., Hamilton, C., & Arboldea, A. (2010). Effects of a supplemental Spanish oral language program on sentence length, complexity, and grammaticality in Spanish-speaking children attending English-only preschools. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 41: 3-13.

September 30, 2019
by Mary Pat

What language should speech & language therapy be in for your multilingual child?

If your child has a language impairment or at risk of developing one you might well be wondering how speech and language therapy is going two work out. Especially if the SLT doesn’t speak your language. This is the first post in a series because there’s a lot to say on the topic so make sure you’re signed up to Talk Nua to get the next installment in your in-box. I’m talking here about language: vocabulary and grammar for example. I’ll cover speech sound problems another day. Deep breath now, cos this is complicated!


There are two issues here. # 1 should the intervention focus on home language only, community language only, or both? There isn’t a lot of high- quality research about this yet. However, a 2016 paper tried to synthesise the research on both bilingual and home language-only approaches to intervention to date for children aged 2-6. I’m going to share the main points with you here because it’s the most recent publication I could find. It’s also important to remember that most of the research covered is from the US or the UK. And I’m not talking about endangered languages (like Welsh or Irish) here.


The bottom line is that research and policies of a range of organisations recommend focusing on both the home languages and community languages of young bilingual children. Of the evidence that exits right now, the ultimate conclusion is that bilingual approaches to instruction produce the best language, reading, and academic outcomes. Home language intervention is important not only for improving language and literacy outcomes but also for helping young children maintain communication with their families who may speak only the home language. Several studies conducted in the US found that children in English-only early education settings demonstrated decreased rates of growth in their home language. One potential negative consequence of this decreased growth in home language at such an early age is less access to family conversations and the relationships in home environments that also foster school readiness and stronger language outcomes.


It’s part of the role of the SLT and early childhood educators to consider family needs and priorities in intervention planning. There’s emerging evidence that family communication patterns can be interrupted for both children with language impairments and those at risk when only English is targeted in language intervention and when home languages are not validated by practitioners. Limiting natural communication in a child’s home environment can affect the parent-child relationship deeply as well as affecting opportunities for communication.


Adolescents who do not speak their family’s native language have been found to engage in less conversation with their families and were more likely to feel emotionally distant. In groups of children who were already at risk for poor communication and attachment difficulties due to their disabilities, this risk of isolation and poor attachment can be made worse by professionals who are unaware of the negative consequences of advising families to drop home languages and use English. The same applies to professionals who ignore home languages during intervention. A monolingual approach to language intervention which focuses on the community language only cannot be justified. A monolingual approach supporting your home language only is a different story. I’ll post about that too another day.


There’s a growing body of evidence supporting the delivery of intervention in the home language for children at risk for and diagnosed with language impairments.


Interventions for children at risk of language impairments included three main approaches: #1 bilingual preschool programs, #2 supplemental small-group literacy interventions, and #3 individualised intervention programmes using parent-focused training and interventions delivered by parents through home-based services. 


#1 Bilingual instruction with at risk children: One series of studies used a transitional bilingual model where 100% of the pre-school day was spent using Spanish in the first year, and Spanish was reduced to 70% in the second year. The largest effect sizes were found on measures of Spanish receptive vocabulary and Spanish letter-word identification in the transitional bilingual model mentioned above.


#2 Supplemental interventions with at risk children using either bilingual or home language only: These interventions used trained bilingual staff or teachers and generally consisted of specific activities for improving vocabulary, phonological awareness, and more general language skills in Spanish and English. Studies used techniques such as vocabulary bridging (learning about both languages), enhanced storybook reading with targeted vocabulary instruction in the home language, child & parent literacy instruction in the home language. As usual, each study did things differently lasting from 3 weeks to 12 months and doing intervention once a week to every day. To cut a long story short: All studies indicated that home language instruction improved the language outcomes over the control group or comparison group.


 #3 Parent training in home-based interventions:

These kind of interventions, focus on training parents to prepare their children for school success. Other approaches focus on improving parent-child book reading, book making activities, asking questions that open up conversations and expanding utterances. All together, the research shows that parent involvement with book reading and systematic language stimulation techniques are effective for helping increase home and community language abilities in children who are acquiring two or more languages.


What about children who have an identified language problem?

The types of interventions that feature in the research so far tend to target language, literacy, and academic enrichment. What worked best? Dialogic book reading. (Don’t worry, I’m going to do a separate post on how to do this) In a study of 22-41-month-old bilingual preschool children with expressive vocabulary delays, intervention was provided in English and Spanish at the same time to a group of six children, while six other children were in a delayed treatment control group. Thirty 15-min sessions using dialogic book-reading strategies were provided in each language in the children’s homes; in English by the main researcher and in Spanish by the children’s mothers, who were trained in the techniques of dialogic book-reading. Results showed that the children in the intervention group learned significantly more target words in each language following the intervention than the children in the control group. The children in the intervention group were also able to produce the acquired words at the time of a follow-up test 6 weeks after the end of the intervention. The gains in the overall vocabulary of the two groups of children did not differ significantly. The children’s mothers expressed satisfaction with the program, and confirmed the benefits of dialogic book-reading for their children’s learning of target words.


Another approach that worked was the Vocabulary, Oral Language and Academic Readiness (VOLAR) programme, designed specifically for preschool, Latino dual language learners with language impairment. Research consistently report a large vocabulary gap in English between these children and their monolingual English peers. The programme also targeted oral language skills because children with language impairments need intensive and focused language stimulation to address their language delays.


To help children learn new vocabulary, the VOLAR teachers explicitly facilitated the child’s ability to recognise a new word, repeat it, explain its meaning, relate its meaning to existing knowledge and new knowledge and apply it to new contexts.


Both English and Spanish were alternated in a structured manner, and activities for each bilingual book were practiced in a small group lesson for four consecutive days during 9 weeks. Vocabulary and concepts were introduced in a Spanish lesson on the first day of the week and then the same words and concepts are taught in an English lesson, using the same books, materials and activities on the following day. For the remaining two days, the languages were alternated in different order each week.


On ‘Spanish days’ teachers read books such as La Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood) and teach target vocabulary (e.g. bosque and recoger). On the corresponding ‘English days’, teachers read the English version of the book and teach the target words in English (e.g. forest and gather). Within the VOLAR programme, the alternation of the two languages resulted in the allocation of half of the time to each language. While the teachers stayed in the target language for the day, the children could respond in either language to demonstrate knowledge and skills.


The results of the study showed that both typically developing dual language learners and children with language impairment can benefit from a dual language immersion programme such as VOLAR. Their developmental outcomes in the two languages provide further evidence that children with language impairment should not be excluded from a bilingual or dual language curriculum. Although the scores of the children with language impairment lagged behind those of their typically developing peers, it was clear that children with language learning disabilities were able to learn a second language, but may need greater support for their home language to prevent loss of that language.


It’s not just about the intervention though. A range of other factors also play a part in language outcomes. They are:


  • Current language exposure,
  • Home language environments,
  • Socio-economic status (usually measured by education level of mothers, household income levels, occupations- I’m simplifying a lot here!),
  • Languages of instruction in the classroom, and
  • Your child’s proficiency in each of their languages.


So, you can see how complicated it is! Essentially, bilingual approaches to language intervention produce the best language, literacy and academic outcomes. Twenty years ago, Vera Gutierrez-Clellen reported that there’s no evidence that a bilingual approach to intervention confuses children who have language impairments or that it would make things harder for them. Twenty years ago!! The SLT does not need to speak your languages in order to provide effective language intervention- I’ll cover how that might work in another post. In the next post, I’m going to go into more specific things you can do to help your child’s language when they have an identified language problem.

Be sure and sign up to get the next installment!

Let’s get talking


What I read so you don’t have to!

Durán, LK., Hartzheim, D., Lund, EM., Simonsmeier, V., & Kohlmeier, T. (2016). Bilingual and home language interventions with young dual language learners: a research synthesis. Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools 47:347-371.


Gutierrez-Clellen, V. (1999) Language choice in intervention with bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 8: 291-302.


Ijalba, E. (2015). Effectiveness of a parent-implemented language and literacy intervention in the home language. Child Language & Teaching Therapy 3(2): 207-220.


Simon-Cereijido & Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. (2014). Bilingual education for all: Latino dual language learners with language disabilities. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 17: 235-254.




September 5, 2019
by Mary Pat

The truth about multilingual children’s vocabularies

The truth is- it’s complicated! But there are some things we can say for definite and I’ve put those in bold.

Vocabulary means the words your child knows and uses; kind of like their mental dictionary. The size of multilingual children’s vocabulary has been shown to be a good representation of overall language ability. It’s important because it provides the building blocks to language development. And vocabulary knowledge drives the development of grammar. There’s strong evidence to connect vocabulary with your child’s later language and cognitive development. Having a large vocabulary at 24 months, has been linked to stronger performance on measures of maths, reading, and behaviour at age 5. Your child’s vocabulary growth is considered to be directly related to their overall success at school. The size of your child’s vocabulary predicts her ability to learn to read.

In a multilingual family, your child is acquiring two or more vocabularies. So they spend varying amounts of time being exposed or receiving input in each of their languages. That’s just the way it is. It’s likely that they’re not going to have the same level of vocabulary in any one of their languages as a monolingual speaker of each language would have. Why? Because they’re not 2 or 3 monolingual people combined. They use their languages to talk with different people (parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers) for different reasons (telling news, telling jokes, explaining how to play a game, answering a question) in different places (home, on the phone, on summer holidays, at school, at football, playing with neighbours). These three aspects of multilingual language development affect how their vocabulary unfolds.

There are many other factors that influence your child’s vocabulary development. Like how much exposure to the languages they’re getting. Vocabulary development is thought to be particularly influenced by the amount of input because building vocabulary means learning words one by one. Grammar is different because it’s made up of rules that have more general applications like plurals for example.

 Opportunities to use the languages are also important as is the quality of the exposure. It’s not enough to talk to your child in the target language(s). It’s how you talk with them. (Keep reading to find out how to do this.) Other influences are how alike or different the languages are (for example Spanish and Italian are closer than Spanish and Mandarin Chinese) and the statuses of the languages where you live. Children who speak home or minority languages are especially dependent on language exposure at home as the community doesn’t support their home language.

The vocabulary levels of monolingual children tend to be the measurement benchmark for multilingual children which isn’t the appropriate reference point. It’s not comparing like with like. As Elin Thordardottir (a respected researcher in the field) says “...bilingual children constitute not one, but many populations …[and] a single norm will not be able to be developed that applies to the bilingual population as a whole.”) It can be useful to have this information to hand though if you meet people who tell you that learning two languages or more causes language problems.

The research that compares monolingual and multilingual children’s vocabulary size has found that multilingual children have smaller, bigger, and similar vocabularies when compared with monolingual children’s! It depends on what is measured and how it’s measured. If you test an English-only speaking child’s vocabulary, you’re testing their whole vocabulary. But if you test a multilingual child’s vocabulary in only one language, you’re only testing only one component of their vocabulary. Not fair and not accurate. Studies which measure the total vocabulary of multilingual children have found that they’re the same size or bigger than the monolingual child’s total vocabulary. And when researchers measure what’s called conceptual vocabulary (basically the number of concepts or ideas that children have a verbal label for), both groups are similar.


So the bottom line is that speaking two languages or more does not disadvantage children when you measure total and/or conceptual vocabulary. Using monolingual norms to make judgements about multilingual children’s language development is a no-no. If your child’s vocabulary is being tested maybe at school or by a speech and language therapist, make sure you keep your focus on total vocabulary. And also think about the amount of exposure to the languages.

What else does the recent research say?

It has been shown that children who have dominant exposure to one of their languages have vocabulary sizes that are similar to monolingual speakers of that language. Even when tested only in the more dominant language. But not all studies have found the same thing…….One UK study found that a child needs to hear the dominant language at least 60% of the time in order to achieve vocabulary scores on a par with monolingual peers. But that presupposes there is a dominant language in your situation. That might not be how it is for your family.

And a 2017 study looking at 6 groups of bilingual children found large variability in the groups of children when it came to expressive vocabulary. (The language pairs were Maltese and English, Irish and English, French and Portuguese, Turkish and German, and English and Hebrew) They found that children could say more words in their L1 than in their L2 and had greater total vocabularies then conceptual vocabularies which is common in bilingual children. But not all children have a clear L1 and L2…..

There’s a lot of variation in the research and there are lots of studies that report smaller vocabularies for multilingual children. One study which looked at vocabulary in 1738 children between age 3 and 10 in the US found that that although the bilingual children had smaller vocabularies in both languages, the difference had to do with vocabulary associated with home environments. This isn’t an indication of a problem. Of course there was an imbalance because we use languages differently according to the situations we’re using it in.  When it came to vocabulary for school, the monolingual and bilingual children were more comparable. This means that bilingual children are not at disadvantage when it comes to academic performance, learning to read and write, and using spoken language for school related topics.  There’s a lovely line at the end of a paper by Ellen Bialystock and her colleagues: Bilingual children are constructing the world through two telescopes, and their two vocabularies provide the lenses.

A 2011 study in Canada set out to control for many of the influencing factors that I mentioned above. That study found a strong and systematic relationship between vocabulary development and the amount of exposure to the languages in the 5-year-old children who participated. There was a clear relationship between expressive vocabulary (looking at pictures and naming them) and the amount of exposure: more exposure led to higher scores. When it came to comprehension, it wasn’t so clear. They found that once exposure hit 40-60% in either French or English, increasing exposure didn’t lead to higher scores. Interestingly, they also found that when children started to learn the two languages at different times (before 6 months of after 20 months) but were matched for similar amounts of exposure to the languages, they did not differ significantly on any vocabulary measure.   What’s important to remember about this study is that fact that both languages were supported in the community and the languages are fairly closely related.  It’s important to remember the context of your child. What languages are they exposed to? When did they start being exposed to them? Are the languages closely related like Spanish and Italian, or distinct like English and Mandarin Chinese for instance. How much exposure are they getting to the languages? How much opportunity to use the languages?

Several studies have found that nouns tend to dominate in multilingual children’s early vocabularies. Just like monolingual children. All children need exposure to a range of different words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions so they have the building blocks they need to put words together into phrases and later sentences. Click here for tips on how to develop your child’s range of words.

If your multilingual child’s vocabulary is being assessed by a speech and language therapist because you’re worried that they’re slow to talk, make sure that all their languages are taken into account when counting the words. There are two instruments that SLTs can use to do this. The first one is the McArthur Bates Communication Development Inventories (CDI) which is available in a range of languages. It can be used with children up to age 37 months and includes words and gestures. (https://mb-cdi.stanford.edu/) The CDI is a measure of the words your child says. One limitation of it is that it doesn’t look at what your child does with the words they have. Things like labelling, commenting, requesting, protesting, rejecting, greeting and so on. It’s important to look at how your child communicates using the words they have too. For that there’s the Language Use Inventory which is also available in a range of languages https://languageuseinventory.com/. It’s for children between the ages of 18 and 47 months. Neither of these instruments is particularly expensive. They’re definitely worth it.

How do you build your multilingual child’s vocabulary? I’ve got you covered. You’ll find tips that work here , and here.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends. And if you’re on Facebook, I’d love it if you liked the Talk Nua Facebook page. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/talknua/

Let’s get talking!


What I read so you don’t have to

Bialystock, E, Luk, G., Peets, K., and Yang, S. (2010). Receptive vocabulary differences in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism 13(4):525-531.

De Houwer, A., Bornstein, M., and Putnick, D. (2014). A bilingual–monolingual comparison of young children’s vocabulary size: Evidence from comprehension and production. Applied Psycholinguistics 35 (6): 1189-1211.

Hadley, PA., Rispoli, M, and Tsu, N. (2016) Toddlers’ verb lexicon diversity and grammatical outcomes. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 47 (1): 44-58.

Aneta Miękisz, Ewa Haman, Magdalena Łuniewska, Katarzyna Kuś, Ciara O’Toole & Napoleon Katsos (2017) The impact of a first-generation immigrant environment on the heritage language: productive vocabularies of Polish toddlers living in the UK and Ireland, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 20:2, 183-200.

Morgan, P., Farcas, G., Hillemeir, M., Hammer, C., and Maczgua, S. (2015) 24-month-old children with larger oral vocabularies display greater academic and behavioral functioning at kindergarten entry. Child Development 86(5): 1351-1370.

Monsrud, MB, Rydland, V. Geva, E., Thurmann-Moe, AC., and Lyister SA. (2017). The advantages of jointly considering first and second language vocabulary skills among emergent bilingual children. International Journal Of Bilingual Education And Bilingualism DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2019.1624685

O Toole, C., Gatt, D., Hickey, T.M., Mieksz, Haman, E. Armon-Lotem, Rinker, T., Ohana, O., dos Santos, C. and S. Kern, S. (2017) Parent report of early lexical production in bilingual children across varied contexts: A CDI study. International Journal Of Bilingual Education And Bilingualism 20(2):124-145.

Ciara O’Toole & Tina M. Hickey (2017) Bilingual language acquisition in a minority context: using the Irish–English Communicative Development Inventory to track acquisition of an endangered language, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 20:2, 146-162.

Rudolph, J. and Leonard, L. (2016) Early language milestones and specific language impairment. Journal of Early Intervention 38(1): 41-58.

Thordardottir, E. (2011). The relationship between bilingual exposure and vocabulary development. International Journal of Bilingualism 15(4): 426-445.


August 29, 2019
by Mary Pat

Six of life’s frustrations that are necessary for our children’s emotional development.

A few years ago, I did an interesting course with the wonderful developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld. (You can check him out here. ) I learned a lot about attachment. And the importance of frustration for our children’s emotional development and well-being. The general idea is that rather than subvert or avoid frustrating situations, our children need to feel the futility of something that they cannot change. And move from feeling bad to sad; feeling the tears of futility and accepting that sometimes there are things you cannot change or hold onto. One of his colleagues Deborah Macnamara wrote a great book called Rest Play Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like Oneif you’d like to read more about the approach. She has a list of futilities that our children will most likely encounter; life lessons that are painful and yet necessary to experience for emotional well-being. Here are the 6 that resonated most with me: 

#1 The pain of trying to hold onto good experiences like leaving the playground or the end of a holiday. I remember sobbing my heart out at the end of our annual trip to Dublin in the summer: no more bus rides, staying with the aunties, or eating Knickerbocker Glories in the Burlington Hotel! 

# 2 The frustration of trying to make something work that doesn’t. My little girl experienced this one day when she was about two and a half and wanted to wear a pink jumper with an owl on it that was now too small. 

#3 The fact that you can’t possess a parent or friend; sharing friends can be very hard and sharing your mama with others can generate intense emotions! 

# 4 The futility of wanting to send a new sibling back to where they came from. Being a youngest child, I haven’t experienced this directly, but I can totally imagine what it might feel like when an interloper comes along!  

#5 The futility of wanting to be bigger than you are– we are in the middle of this in our house right now where my little girl wants to be a grown up. She is very definite that she is a grown up and gets very annoyed if I call her a child. We were reading The Cursed Child ( a play about Harry Potter and friends many years later). At one point, Harry Potter says something along the lines that parenting is hard. Another character points of to him that growing up is the hard thing and it struck me that there’s a lot of truth in that.  

 #6 The pain of wanting to be wanted where you aren’t: not being invited to a birthday party, siblings or friends not wanting to play with you.  

 So, what can we do as parents to support our children through these painful experiences? Here’s what Deborah recommends:  

#1 Provide a clear and direct “No” to the request or agenda with little explanation. Of course, tone of voice is important here and you would need to say it kindly! (Not always easy, I know!!)  

#2 If you see that your child is feeling the futility (this can be subtle like a watering of the eyes, or more obvious sadness or crying), then you know that they are on the way to being able to adapt to the futility. They are being changed by what they can’t have or change.  

#3 Once they’ve accepted your no and adapted, then she suggests that you can share your reasons for the “No” 

Acknowledging your child’s feelings as described in one of my favourite parenting books (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish) will help here too. I remember when my little girl was very upset because her doll was in the washing machine and she really wanted her. I had been reading the book and somehow managed to remember about the feelings and said You really want your dolly but she’s in the washing machine. You could almost see the frustration drain out of her.

They also talk about giving your child what they want in fantasy which might seem counter-productive but in my experience does work. So the day my little girl was frustrated over the pink jumper being too small, I overheard her say to herself “I wish I had a huge pink jumper”. She had learned to soothe herself. And talking about what she might wish for often made her laugh when we imagined outrageous possibilities and took the intensity out of the moment.  

What things does your child find frustrating? What helps you be there with them in those moments? Be sure and leave a comment below.  

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Let’s get talking!


July 4, 2019
by Mary Pat

Three crucial things to remember about language development in bilingual children.

Dr Kathyrn Kohnert, a speech & language therapist and researcher in the US wrote a very interesting article in 2010 for speech & language therapists. Her aim was to explore how to best provide speech & language therapy for bilingual families. She highlighted three important features of language development in bilingual children that are really useful to remember. For parents, teachers, SLTs and anyone working with bilingual families. The ideas are the same whether you speak 2 languages or 4.  Let’s have a look :


#1 Language skills tend to be distributed across languages and vary over time. This means that it’s natural for multilingual children to know some words in only one of their languages. It’s not a case of two or three monolingual speakers of each language in the one child. A simple example is where they have words to do with home, family, and community in the language used there and then they learn words to do with maths and science and geography and so on at school. It’s important to know this because it means that you need to think about all of the words your child has in all of their languages. And it means that if they’re seeing a speech and language therapist, they need to have all of their languages tested. When their language is tested, it’s not unusual for multilingual children to do better on some tasks than on others. So, they might be good with vocabulary and story-telling in the home language and not so good at these in the community language, especially when they’ve just started school. That’s just the way it goes and it doesn’t mean your child has a language problem.


# 2 The languages interact with each other. Basically, the languages do seem to be stored separately in multilingual children’s brains, but they interact with each other. Multilingual people tend to mix languages and switch between them to different degrees. Children aren’t confused when they mix. You can only mix things that are separate to begin with and if you look closely, the mixed things they say are grammatically correct. For example, my little girl who has been immersed in Irish for about 5 hours daily since she was 4 was writing sentences that mixed Irish and English until this year. So she wrote Tá mé ag wearing sciorta in Irish. It’s I am wearing a skirt in English. It should be Tá mé ag caitheamh sciorta. She had the correct Irish grammatical structure, didn’t have the verb in Irish and so she popped in the English version in the correct place in the sentence. Not a sign of a problem- it’s a neat solution to the problem. She’s doing it less now. But what’s going on now is that she’s using Irish words with an English sentence structure. So Mercury is the planet next to the sun should be Is é Mearcair an phláinéad in aice leis an ghrian. But she wrote Tá Mearcair an phláinéad in aice leis an ghrian which is closer to English grammar. So when your child does this mixing , it might just be that they didn’t have the word they wanted in one language, so they popped in the equivalent word from another language- pretty cool when you think about it.


#3 Every one’s different and every multilingual situation is unique. In the research, even when children are matched closely in groups, there’s a lot of variation between individual children in the group and how they perform on language testing. And there’s also a lot of variation between groups of carefully matched multilingual children who speak the same languages. That’s because there are a range of factors that affect language development which are unique for every family. Things like the number of languages spoken, the ages at which children are exposed to the different languages, the opportunities they have to use the languages, their own motivation which can change over time, how similar or different the languages are, the social value attached to the languages and so on. Assessment of multilingual children’s speech & language skills need to take these three factors into account. Here’s an example of the kind of variation I mean: a boy’s expressive vocabulary can vary from 79 words to 511 words at 24 months of age and still be considered within normal limits! So, when looking at the research it’s important to remember that what’s true for the group may not be true for your child.

What about you? How does this fit with your situation? Let me know in the comments below.

If you’d like to read the article in full, I’ve put the reference at the end of the post.

If you like this post please share it with your friends & I’d be delighted if you liked it on Facebook too. You can do that here.

Let’s get talking! MP

PS this is an extract from the book I’m writing for multilingual families. If you’re not on my list already, be sure to sign up so you’ll know when it’s ready. You can sign up at the top of the page, near the title of the post. 


Kohnert, K. (2010) Bilingual children with primary language impairment: issues, evidence, &  implications for clinical actions. Journal of Communication Disorders 43: 456-473.

May 13, 2019
by Mary Pat

Can your child who has autism learn two or more languages?

If you’re a parent of a child with autism and you’re raising your child using two languages or more, it’s highly likely that somewhere along the way, you’ve been told to drop a language and only focus on one. Because after all, one is hard and two are harder right? Wrong! For multilingual children with developmental problems, Kathryn Kohnert, (a well-respected researcher in the area) says one is hard and two is hard. For multilingual children with a language problem, the underlying impairment will manifest in all languages, most likely because the problem is due to some underlying inefficiency in processing language input. Therefore, all languages are affected. And language skills tend to be distributed across the languages which is why it is important to assess all the languages.


In this post, I’m using the term multilingualism broadly to mean children who understand and/or use two or more languages in spoken, sign, or written form, regardless of the age at which they learned the languages (based on an Australian International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech). I’m also coming from the perspective that for most multilingual families, using two or more languages is a necessity. The social advantage of continuing on your multilingual journey with your child who has a diagnosis of ASD is that they can be fully included in important life contexts.


The good news is that children with autism/ASD can and do become multilingual. There isn’t a lot of research but there is enough to prove that if your child needs to be multilingual and has ASD, they can still be multilingual. It’s all about what they need the languages for. And dropping a language can actually turn an impairment into a handicap according to Kathryn Kohnert. Doing that limits your child’s participation in a range of contexts and can negatively affect their social, emotional, and educational progress. I like François Grosjean’s emphasis on the regular use of 2 or more languages – what is important is language use rather than proficiency or competence. Multilingual children with autism need and use 2 languages or more in their everyday lives. While multilingual children with ASD may never completely acquire any language, they still need to use two or more languages to function effectively and fully in their day to day lives according to Kay Raining-Bird and colleagues in a recent review of the topic.


It may also be important to remind your Health Care Professional HCPs that multilingualism is often a necessity, sometimes a choice, and in countries such as Canada where there are 2 official languages and Ireland where there are 3, also a right. If you run in to trouble with HCPs giving you the wrong advice, here  are some effective tips for handling the situation.


Let’s have a look at some recent research about having ASD & speaking two or more languages and see what it says.


In 2012, Kay Raining Bird and her colleagues in Canada surveyed 49 families who were multilingual and raising a child who had autism. 87% of the parents said that their reason for raising multilingual children was so that they could communicate with family, school, and neighbours. 79% of people reported that they lived in a bilingual city or country. The main concerns the parents had about raising a multilingual child who had autism was the lack of professional help or access to services and fear that learning two languages was too hard or would be confusing for their child. Parents were also asked to rate their success at raising their multilingual child who had autism. 21 parents answered this question and of those, 38% described themselves as somewhat successful and 2 parents described themselves as extremely successful.


Another Canadian study in 2012 compared the social and language abilities of 75 young children with autism who were divided into 3 groups: 1: monolingual language exposure, bilingual language exposure before 12 months of age and bilingual language exposure after 12 months of age. They looked at things like social responsiveness, initiating of pointing, response to pointing, attention to voice, vocabulary, when they said their first words and phrases. They found that bilingually exposed children with ASD did not experience additional delays in language development. And they didn’t find any significant differences between the children who were exposed to two languages before or after 12 months of age. They concluded that parents should not be discouraged from speaking two languages with their child who had autism. Or from introducing a second language.


Petersen and colleagues in 2012 (also in Canada) looked at diversity of vocabulary in English-Chinese bilingual and monolingual children with ASD looking at word comprehension and production. When compared with monolingual children with ASD, there were no significant differences in production vocabulary size or vocabulary comprehension scores. They conclude that their results provide evidence that bilingual English-Chinese preschool children have the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals. That these children can be bilingual without experiencing disadvantages in their language development.


Next up is Canada again where Ohashi and colleagues in 2012 compared a group of recently diagnosed bilingual-exposed children with autism aged 24-52 months with a matched group of monolingual-exposed children with autism. They found no statistically significant differences between the two groups on any language measure that the examined. (They looked at things like severity of autism-related impairments in communication, age of first words and phrases, understanding of language, expressive language, and functional communication.) Their results suggest that a bilingual language environment does not disadvantage young children with autism in the early stages of language development.


In 2013, in San Francisco, Betty Yu interviewed 10 bilingual Chinese/English speaking immigrant mothers who had children with autism spectrum disorders. The mothers tended to have deficit views of bilingualism where they believed that being bilingual made learning more challenging. Many of the mothers believed that it caused confusion or made things worse. Views which were commonly (and incorrectly) reinforced by health care and education professionals. Betty Yu concludes that families need support for their efforts at heritage or home language maintenance, reassurance that being bilingual would not harm their child’s development, and support for learning the community language. She reminds us that speech & language therapists should systematically support the development of home languages in children who have language problems. 


A 2016 review of 50 research studies by Uljarević and colleagues revealed that there is little evidence to support the unfortunate but widely-held view that multilingual exposure is harmful to the language or social development of children who live with developmental differences. On the contrary, when it came to studies of multilingual children with ASD, they found a positive effect on communication and social functioning. One limitation is the available pool of studies to review is small and the number of robust studies is also small so further research is needed.


Hot off the press is a North American study which involved 388 children with an average age of 26 months. They compared receptive and expressive language skills of multilingual children who had autism or other developmental disabilities with monolingual children who had autism or other developmental disabilities. They found that language milestones and abilities are not affected by exposure to more than one language. They concluded that bilingual caregivers can communicate with their children who have ASD in both languages without negative effects on their children’s language functioning. In their review of other research, they report how being advised to stop speaking your mother tongue or home language can actually increase the already high stress levels of parents of children who have a developmental disability.


Another Australian study by Sharynne McLeod and colleagues in 2015 involving more than 3000 children found that at ages 4-5 multilingual children with speech and language concern did equally well or better than English language-only children (with or without speech and language concern) on school readiness tests. They did perform more poorly on measures of English vocabulary and behaviour. However, at ages 6-7 and 7-8 the early gap between English language-only and multilingual children had closed. Speaking a language other than English at 4-5 years did not in itself, affect children’s academic outcomes at school and there was no evidence that multilingualism + concern about speech and language resulted in any kind of double delay in academic or behavioural outcomes. Basically, if there were concerns at age 4-5 (whether the child was English only or multilingual), this was the important thing as these children went on to have issues with literacy and mathematical thinking. But children who had typical speech and language development at 4-5 irrespective of being English only or multilingual, did not show evidence of problems later on.


So what does it all mean? Well, the available research indicates that children with speech & language problems and who have autism can and do learn two languages or more given sufficient and enriched opportunities in each language. Once again though, this fact is not yet part of mainstream thinking. The bottom line is that there is NO empirical evidence to support a belief or recommendation that children with ASD or other developmental disabilities should only be exposed to one language. NO EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE!!


The important thing is the high quality language input and social input i.e. opportunities to use their languages. Children from minority language families should be encouraged to continue to speak the home language. Recent research from Canada by Marinova-Todd and Mirenda this year, in relation to children with autism advocates the following:

The specific strengths and weaknesses, learning environments, cultural preferences and family dynamics that affect children with ASD and their families should be taken into consideration when specific language interventions are designed.


They also report that research does not support the practice of language intervention in only one language which is usually the language of the SLP. Multilingual children with speech and language challenges and developmental differences need multilingual intervention in order to help them achieve their potential and participate fully in society.


If you like this post, please share with your friends! If you want the e-book version of this post, be sure to check out the Free Stuff page on the website.

Let’s get talking!


The research:

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Fred Genesee and Ludo Verhoeven (2016) Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: a narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders


Sharynne McLeod, Linda J. Harrison, Chrystal Whiteford and Sue Walker (2015). Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes. Early Childhood research Quarterly 34:53-66


Mirko Uljarević, Napoleon Katsos, Kristelle Hudry, and Jenny Gibson (2016). Practitioner Review: multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders- an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Jouranl of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Erin Lamond, and Jeanette Holden (2012) Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 47(1):52-64.


Jill M. Petersen, Stefka H. Marinova-Todd and Pat Mirenda (2012) Brief report: An exploratory study of lexical skills in bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42: 1499-1503.

Kaori Ohashi, Pat Mirenda, Stefka Marinova-Todd, Catherine Hambly, Eric Fombonne, Peter Szatmari, Susan Bryson, Wendy Roberts, Isabel Smith, Tracy Vaillancourt, Joanne Volden, Charlotte Waddell, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Stelios Georgiades, Eric Duku, Ann Thompson, the Pathways in ASD Study Team (2012) Comparing early language development in monolingual-and bilingual-exposed young children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism spectrum disorders 890-897.


Catharine Hambly and Eric Fombonne (2012) The impact of bilingual environments on language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders  42: 1342-1352.


Stefka Marinova-Todd & Pat Mirenda (2016). Language and communication abilities of bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders.


Betty Yu (2013) Issues in bilingualism and heritage language maintenance: perspectives of minority-language mothers of children with ASD. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 22:10-24.


Yael G. Dai, Jeffery D. Burke, Letitia Naigles, Inge-Marie Eigsti, & Deborah A. Fein. (2018) Language abilities in monolingual- and bilingual-exposed children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 55: 38-49.

April 26, 2019
by Mary Pat

What to expect from a speech and language therapy assessment

So you’re a parent of a bilingual little girl who has just turned three. She doesn’t use very many words but she is interested in interacting and seems to understand a lot. You’d like to know her language level. You’d like a speech and language therapist (SLT) to assess her. How do SLTs do this? Read this post to find out what you can expect to happen during an SLT assessment.

Now of course, what happens will vary from situation to situation depending on the reason your child was referred but I’m keeping it simple here with a focus on a child who might be late to talk. And it’s important to remember that assessment is a process that takes time. You don’t always get a clear answer after the first session. And the idea of a language level is complex!


What to expect from your SLT assessment:

# 1 General discussion with you about your concerns- questions like:

  • What are you most concerned about? When did you start to get concerned? What made you become concerned?
  • Have you seen your child learn more words over time?
  • Questions about your child’s early development like was everything okay in the pregnancy and birth?
  • How is your child’s hearing? Has it been tested lately? Have they had ear infections?
  • What is a typical day in your child’s life like? What’s the daily routine?
  • How are they currently communicating? What do they like to communicate about?
  • Who they spend most of their time with? Where do they spend their time? At home? Day care? Play groups? How much time in each?
  • If they’re in day care is it monolingual or multilingual?
  • How many languages do they need to learn?
  • What languages are they currently exposed to? How much of each language (roughly)?
  • Who speaks what language to whom?
  • What languages are they overhearing?
  • At what age(s) did they start being exposed to the different languages? Both from birth? One first and then another one later?
  • Which language do they speak best in?
  • When did they say their first word? What kinds of words are they using (nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions- you can read more about early words )
  • How about understanding the different languages?
  • What games do they like to play? Favourite toys?
  • Do you enjoy sharing books together? How often would you read together?
  • How much of your child’s speech can you understand?


#2 Next up would be some measures of your child’s languages – the words they’re understanding and using in all of their languages. There’s a serious lack of resources for SLTs to test all the languages that their clients speak. That means that the SLT may have to rely on informal observations as opposed to tests. But there are some options like the McArthur Bates Communicative Development Inventories which are available in a range of languages. (The SLT would have to contact the authors of the particular language version in question to see if it’s suitable for your child). This inventory looks at language development from earliest signs of comprehension or first non-verbal gestures, to early vocabulary used and the beginnings of grammar. It’s suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 37 months. And it’s available in a range of languages. Basically, there are lists of words and you tick if your child uses them.


Another option is the Receptive and Expressive Emergent Language Scale (REEL 3) which starts from birth to 3 years and although not designed with bilingual children in mind, the information does give insight into a child’s language development. It looks at understanding and use of language and has a vocabulary checklist too. The SLT could take all the languages into account when using this test and look at the answers you give as opposed to relying on the scores. I also  like Amy Wetherby’s First Words Project which you can access here.  There’s useful information 16 gestures by 16 months and 16 actions with objects by 16 months. The website and materials are available in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. A word of caution though- some of the gestures or objects for example may not be relevant to your culture so just bear this in mind.


# 3 It’s also important to think about what your child does with the words they have. It’s not enough to have lots of words, your child needs to use them to communicate. There are other checklists like the Pragmatics Profile (by Dewart and Summers, available here.) This will help identify the way your child communicates using their whole body, sounds, gestures and words. How do they get your attention? Do they greet familiar people and wave bye bye for example? Do they reject something that they don’t like? How do they do that? With words? Facial expression? Pushing the thing away and saying no? There’s also the option of the Language Use Inventory which is being adapted in 10 languages across the world. You can find out more about it here. You might also be asked about any word combinations that your child is using. And if they mix the languages. (Mixing languages isn’t a problem- you can read more about that here. )


# 4 Language samples: this means the SLT would collect samples of your child talking with different people in different places. (Either video or audio recording) Like at home with you, in day care with friends, in day care with the staff, at home with siblings and so on. The idea here is that language varies according to who your child is talking with, where the talking is happening, and what they’re talking about. An interpreter might also be involved for testing in the languages other than the community language.


# 5 Your child’s speech So far we’ve talked about your child’s language- the words they understand, use, and combine. The SLT will also take into consideration the way your child pronounces their words- their speech. They might ask you to fill out the Intelligibility in Context Scale which is available in a range of languages here. It’s got 7 items. Things like Do you understand your child? Do immediate members of your family understand your child?  You circle one of the following options: Always Usually Sometimes Rarely Never. The SLT may get your child to name some pictures to get a map of the sounds they’re using and may also ask your child to make some individual sounds like /k/ or /s/ for example. There’s a useful book called Difference or Disorder that gives information about a range of languages in terms of the speech sounds and the grammar. (Here’s the link)


While all of this is going on the SLT will be observing your child; listening to the quality of their voice, watching out for signs of stuttering, making notes of the speech sounds they’re using, their teeth, use of a soother/pacifier, observing their play, looking at gestures and working out what other investigations they need to make. So while on the surface it might look a lot like playing and having fun, you can see that there’s a LOT going on! It’s not straightforward and it takes time to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to work out if your child has a speech, language, or communication impairment. Establishing the language level your child is functioning at is complex. It’s important to remember that especially when it comes to multilingual children, there is a lot of individual variation in how children’s languages develop. Even if you have a group of children speaking the same two languages, you get a lot of variation. Thinking in terms of the age your child is and comparing them with others of the same age isn’t that helpful to be honest as, once again, there is a lot of individual variation. Here’s a video explaining three crucial things about multilingual children and their language development.

If you’re an SLT reading this, what else would you add in? Be sure to leave a comment below.

If you’re a parent reading this and worried about your child’s language development, what would you like your child to be able to language-wise? Be sure and leave a comment below.

It you like this post, please pass it on!

Let’s get talking! MP

March 12, 2019
by Mary Pat

6 Reasons Why Dropping A Language Is A Bad Idea

So you’re a multilingual family, you’re worried about your child’s speech and language development, and a health care professional has told you to focus on one language only. Here are 6 reasons why that advice is wrong.

#1 It shows a lack of understanding about how multilingual language development happens a.k.a they don’t know what they’re talking about but it doesn’t stop them giving wrong advice!

For multilingual children, language skills are distributed across all of their languages. Their skills vary depending on the task that they’re doing and who they’re talking to. You’re not raising 2 monolingual speakers of each language in the one child. Balance is an illusion.  As babies and toddlers and pre-schoolers, your child’s home language may be the dominant one. They’ll have vocabulary to do with home, family, books, television, and play in their home language. Later then when they go to school, they develop school-related vocabulary. They may not have these words in their home language because they don’t use the education language at home.  They may tell stories differently in their home language as opposed to telling stories for school. This is normal for multilingual children. So dropping your home language and focusing on the less developed language puts your child at even more of a disadvantage. Why? Because by dropping languages, your child is prevented from using their stronger language to develop the weaker language.

 #2 Focusing on one language is not a cure for language problems in multilingual children, and it won’t improve things either- quite the opposite! The “dropping a language” approach takes language out of its social context. It forgets that the point of language is to communicate, to connect, to signal identity, to empathise, to entertain, to play, to create, to imagine ……. As Kathryn Kohnert ( a respected researcher in the area) explains: “Language and communication are part of a dynamic system that can be expanded with rich input and diverse opportunities for learning and use”.


#3 It presupposes that using two or more languages is a choice

Using two or more languages in your everyday life is not necessarily a choice. It’s more a description of what you need in your life circumstances. Your child needs two or more languages to communicate successfully in different environments with different people for different purposes. Focusing on only one language means that your child would become monolingual in a multilingual family or community. This makes language problems worse because it means cutting off a whole set of language skills. And doing so can isolate your child from family members such as grandparents and cousins. And it can also isolate them within their local community. As Kathryn Kohnert so eloquently puts it: “Discounting one of the languages limits [your child’s] resources, negates previous communication experience, and denies future opportunities.”


#4 Being multilingual does not make language problems worse

Monolingual children who have language problems learn language (yes more slowly and maybe not to the same level as their unaffected peers). And multilingual children who have language problems learn their languages at a slower pace and maybe not to the same level as their bilingual peers who don’t have language problems. But they can get to the same level as their monolingual peers who have language problems if given similar language opportunities.


#5 Working on both languages in speech and language therapy doesn’t have a negative effect on the community language

There’s evidence to show that bilingual vocabulary treatment with preschool children benefits both the community language as well as the home language. There’s enough research to show that supporting the home language in young bilingual children who have language delay, makes it easier to learn a second language. So working on both languages benefits both languages which is what bilingual children need. By not focusing on the home language in pre-schoolers and instead focusing on the majority language, the language problems could actually be made worse. Because in that scenario, you get rapid erosion of the home language coupled with slow learning of the second language. It’s not fair to expect a child with language problems to learn the second language without being able to use their home language to help them.


#6 There are distinct cognitive and social advantages to being multilingual

Being bilingual gives children distinct advantages cognitively and socially. Better problem solving. A larger working memory and not just for tasks that involve language. Greater earning potential. Being multilingual delays the onset of dementia and multilingual people who experience language problems after having a stroke tend to have better language outcomes. (Now of course the research isn’t as black and white as that but there are documented advantages)


For most people, two or more languages in their family is the way of their life. When it comes to multilingual children with language problems, Kathryn Kohnert puts it like this: “Should children with varying degrees of physical co-ordination, artistic ability, or aptitude for maths be encouraged to engage in sports, drawing/painting, or algebra? Most people would say Of Course!” You wouldn’t dream of telling a child who wasn’t great at PE to stop trying different physical activities. So why would it be any different when it comes to languages?


When it comes to speech and language therapy then, the bottom line is that intervention for multilingual children must explicitly support all languages needed by them. They need their languages in order to access and succeed in the different areas of their lives. This includes family relations, school, their local community, hobbies, etc.. Lifelong goals for academic and job-related achievements along with social, emotional, and communicative well-being are important for all children. Focusing on only one language may mean that intervention is less effective. And it can also have negative knock-on effects on the child’s participation in their community which isn’t justifiable.


Dropping a language is a problem because it’s like telling someone who is right handed to stop using their left hand completely. Try doing that for a while and see how you get on!

Hope you like the post! Please pass it onto your friend!

Let’s get talking!


What I read so you don’t have to:


Kathryn Kohnert (2013). Language disorders in bilingual children and adults. Oxford: Plural Publishing.


Pham, Kohnert, & Mann (2011). Addressing clinician–client mismatch: a preliminary intervention study with a bilingual Vietnamese–English pre-schooler.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 42:401-422.


Elin Thordardottir (2010). Towards evidence-based practice in language intervention for bilingual children. Journal of Communication Disorders 43:523-537.


February 6, 2019
by Mary Pat

Can your child who has Down syndrome learn two or more languages?

If you’re a parent of a child with Down syndrome and you’re raising your child using two languages or more, it’s possible that somewhere along the way, you’ve been told to drop one of  language. After all, children with Down syndrome struggle with language development so wouldn’t it be easier to focus on just one language only? This is simply not true. “Common sense” is wrong in this case. The research tells us that health care professionals should support you in raising your child who has Down syndrome as a multilingual child. In fact, dropping a language can actually make things worse. It can end up limiting your child’s participation in a range of situations. It can negatively affect their social, emotional, and educational progress.

If your child has Down syndrome and needs to use 2 or more languages in their everyday lives, then that is what they need. While multilingual children with Down syndrome will of course vary in the degree to which they acquire their languages, they still need to use two or more languages to function effectively and fully in their day to day lives. Multilingualism isn’t always a choice. And if it is a choice, children with Down syndrome can become multilingual. (Remember multilingual does not mean fluent in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Language abilities in these 4 modes vary across languages in multilingual children in general. And children with Down syndrome will have cognitive and language challenges but this still doesn’t mean they can’t acquire two or more languages.)

So what does the research actually tell us? Now, compared with topics like being a late talker or having developmental language disorders, there isn’t a lot of research involving multilingual children with Down syndrome. But here’s what I found from 1993 – 2016. More research definitely needs to be done. Many of the studies only involve small numbers of participants. And what’s true for someone in a study may not be true for your situation. And all research has limitations. Bearing all that in mind, let’s have a look at what’s out there.

One study in 1993 involved a 23 year old Italian woman with Down syndrome who had been exposed to English, French, and Italian since childhood. When her languages were tested, she was able to have conversations in all three languages and understand English television shows. Her French abilities were weaker because it was the language she spoke least often. Nothing to do with having Down syndrome then- that would be the same pattern for any multilingual person.

Another study involved twins with Down syndrome who were born to deaf parents. They learned both English and British Sign Language to the point where they could communicate effectively in both. Yes, they showed impairments in both languages compared with monolingual children but that’s not that surprising. They also showed a preference for English even though BSL was the home language. But most multilingual children show preferences for their different languages at different times and in different settings.

A 2005 study by Kay Raining Bird (she’s done a lot of the research), found that there wasn’t a significant difference between monolingual and bilingual children with Down syndrome when it came to any of the tests of English that they did. Again the children with Down syndrome, whether they were monolingual or bilingual, did have language delays but not because of being raised with two or more languages. Now, there was considerable variation in 2nd language abilities in the children with Down syndrome. This means that some children with DS may have more difficulty learning two languages but it doesn’t meant they can’t learn two. And once again, it’s important to think about what your child needs language-wise. If they need two languages, they need two languages. And there’s a lot of individual variation in language development between individual multilingual children and groups of matched multilingual children who don’t have Down syndrome. Kay Raining Bird concluded that children with Down syndrome can be successful in acquiring two languages. And that bilingual children with Down syndrome perform in their stronger language at least as well as monolingual children with Down syndrome when the children are compared with children at a similar level of development.

A 2008 Canadian study of vocabulary and grammar in children aged between 5 and 8 years old found that the bilingual children with Down syndrome did show language delays in both languages but bilingualism was not the cause of these delays. Children who have Down syndrome do struggle with language development affecting expressive language in particular. However, being bilingual does not make these language problems worse. All of the four children with Down syndrome in the study were developing functional second language skills. Just like any child, the variations in their vocabulary was related to the input they were receiving in each language. (English and French were the languages)

Next up is another Canadian study from 2014 also involving Kay Raining Bird. In this study, 14 children with Down syndrome (average age 12 years, 5 months) were involved. And the focus of the study was on word learning and again the researchers found that being bilingual did not have a detrimental effect on the language development of children with Down syndrome.

Next, from the UK, a case study of one girl aged 6 years 11 months when the study started and 9 and a ½ when the study ended. She was born in Belarus to multilingual parents who spoke Russian, English, and Belarusian. She moved to the UK when she was 6 months old. Russian was her home language with limited exposure to English until she started school at age 4 and became more exposed to English. Her parents read to her in Russian daily and extensively and started to teach her to read words in Russian when she was 30 months old. In this study they wanted to look at her speaking and word level reading. They showed that when it came to spoken language, the little girl was as proficient in Russian as she was in English with slightly stronger word reading ability in English. Similar to monolingual children with Down syndrome, this little girl did struggle with aspects of reading such as understanding what she was reading. In fact, when it came to understanding what she was reading, the little girl performed similarly to monolingual children with Down syndrome suggesting that this may be an area of difficulty for children with Down syndrome in general.  They concluded that learning to speak and read two languages in the presence of having a learning difficulty, does not necessarily lead to a detrimental effect on a child’s spoken language or word level reading.

Hot off the press is a review of 50 research studies which revealed that there’s little evidence to support view that being multilingual is harmful to the language or social development of children who live with developmental differences. The authors recommend that public policies should reinforce the fact that there is no clinical, linguistic, or cognitive evidence to support recommendations that multilingual families drop any of their languages.

Finally, a study that looked the potential cognitive effects on children with Down syndrome learning a second language. 41 children with Down syndrome aged 7-18 years of age took part. 28 were monolingual English speakers who also had Down syndrome. 13 children were bilingual and had Down syndrome. They were exposed to a language other than English for an average of more than 4 hours daily. The children were tested on things like navigating a virtual arena using a joystick to find a hidden object, sequences of numbers generated by tapping fingers, and working memory. The researchers wanted to find out what effect learning a second language might have on these cognitive abilities. What they found was that there was no significant difference between the two groups of children on any of the tests they did. This means that there were no cognitive costs to the children with Down syndrome who were learning a language other than English.  

So what does it all mean? Well, the available research indicates that children who have Down syndrome can and do learn two languages. Unfortunately though, this fact is not yet part of mainstream thinking. It’s important to remember that multilingualism is rarely a choice. It’s more a fact of life for your family. You need two or more languages to communicate at home, with family members, in your communities, at school, and so on. And your multilingual children with Down syndrome need to develop all of their languages. There are no scientific grounds for saying that it’s not possible and that families should stick to one language. That is wrong. And not supported by the best available evidence. It’s important to remember too that in some countries such as Canada where there are 2 official languages and Ireland where there are 3 (Irish, English, and Irish Sign Language), multilingualism is actually a legal right.

Of course, it’s important to remember that for children with Down syndrome, the level of language proficiency they attain in all of their languages will be affected by their level of cognitive functioning and developmental levels. Similar to any child, environmental factors such as the kind and amount of language input they receive and the opportunities to use their languages will also have an effect on the level of language skills they attain.

It’s important to give high quality language input and opportunities to use their languages. It’s important to support home languages especially as they’re vulnerable. They may have a lower social status and opportunities to hear and use them may be restricted.

As for speech and language therapy, recent research from Canada reports that the practice of language intervention in only one language (which is usually the language of the SLT/SLP) cannot be supported by the current research. Multilingual children with Down syndrome and speech and language challenges need intervention that takes all of their languages into consideration in order to help them achieve their potential and participate fully in society.


If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends and  be sure to sign up for my next post which will be about language intervention for multilingual children.


The research:

Kelly Burgoyne, Fiona Duff, Dea Nielsen, Anastasia Ulicheva, and Margaret Snowling. (2016) Bilingualism and biliteracy in Down syndrome: insights from a case study. Language Learning 66(4): 945-971.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Fred Genesee and Ludo Verhoeven (2016) Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: a narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders 63: 1-14.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Natacha Trudeau, and Ann Sutton (2016) Putting it all together: the road to lasting bilingualism for children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Communication Disorders 63:63-78.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Patricia Cleave, Natacha Trudeau, Elin Thordardottir, Ann Sutron, & Amy Thorpe  (2005) The language abilities of bilingual children with

Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 14: 187-199.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird (2016) Bilingualism and children with Down syndrome in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders.  pp 49-73. Edited by Janet Patterson and Barbara Rodriguez. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mirko Uljarević, Napoleon Katsos, Kristelle Hudry, and Jenny Gibson (2016). Practitioner Review: multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders- an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 57 (11): 1205-1217.

Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Erin Lamond, and Jeanette Holden (2012) Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 47(1):52-64.

Patricia Cleave, Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Natacha Trudeau, and Ann Sutton (2014). Syntactic bootstrapping in children with Down syndrome: the impact of bilingualism. Journal of Communication Disorders 49: 42-54.

Feltmate, K & Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird (2008) Language learning in four bilingual children with Down syndrome: a detailed analysis of vocabulary and morphosyntax. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology 31(1) 6-20.

Stefka Marinova-Todd & Pat Mirenda (2016). Language and communication abilities of bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders.  pp 31-48. Edited by Janet Patterson and Barbara Rodriguez. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

J.O. Edgin, A. Kumar, Spanò, & Nadel, L. (2011). Neuropsychological effects of second language exposure in Down syndrome. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 55 (30): 351-356.



December 14, 2018
by Mary Pat

6 Ways To Raise Multilingual Children

So in your family, you speak two languages or more and you want the same for your children. What’s the best way to do it though? The truth is though that there isn’t one single best way. There isn’t one right way to do it. There’s no one definite way to guarantee your child will become an adult speaking fluently and reading and writing in all the languages. Language development just isn’t like that. By its very nature it’s variable. Why? Because we use different languages for different reasons and topics with different people and that affects language development. Other things that affect language development are the quality of exposure to each of the languages, the amount of quality exposure, the opportunity your child has to use the languages meaningfully, and the status of the languages in the place where you live. It’s a bit like gardening- you can only control how you prepare the ground, plant the seeds or bulbs, water them, weed and so on. You can’t fully control the quality of the seeds. You definitely can’t control the weather! And you can’t control things like the neighbour’s cat digging your seedlings while doing their poo- which is what I saw this morning on my way to work!

What can you do? You can focus on giving your child high quality input in the languages plus opportunities to use them. How do you do that? Have a look at these posts for specific language development tips:

8 Ways To Build Your Toddler’s Vocabulary

Two Small But Powerful Words That Affect Your Child’s Language Development

What Happens After Your Child Says Their First Words?


Consistent high quality input + opportunities to use the languages really help.


Let’s have a look at the options

#1 Have no plan. This is what my Serbian friend did with her little boy. They didn’t have a plan in advance but followed their instincts. She spoke Serbian with him when he was a baby because that’s what came most naturally to her when bonding with him. Her husband spoke English with him because that was his mother tongue. They lived in Germany so that was the language when they were out and about and in school. So initially they had two home languages and the community language. Then they came to Ireland so the community language switched to English. And they were now a minority language at home family. If she spoke Serbian to him and he responded in English, she didn’t pass any remarks. She just continued in Serbian. They spent summer holidays in Serbia. He’s now 19 and confident in Serbian and English. That’s what worked for them.


#2 Make a plan where you work out what you want and how you’re going to do it in advance. Only you can know what’s right for your family and your situation. Do you want to focus on listening and speaking and later reading and writing? How many languages? What ones? Why these? Once you’ve worked this out, then you have other options for how to go about developing your child’s languages. Still keeping in mind, that you only have control over yourself, what you do, and the meanings you attach to what your child is doing. Here are some more options:


# 3 Use the OPOL approach. OPOL stands for one person, one language and started out as a description for how some bilingual parents use their languages with their children. The research shows that this isn’t necessarily the best or most effective way to raise multilingual children. There are issues with it. For example it doesn’t support home language development enough. This is because community languages are so pervasive and have higher status that home languages need intensive support to have a chance. It also goes against a natural tendency in multilingual speakers to mix their languages and switch between them. Multilingual adults do this. Some people do it more than others. Some people do it less. But part of language learning for multilingual children is learning how to do it and when it’s okay to do it and when it’s not. There’s research to show that multilingual children work this out very early on- when they’re toddlers. They work out who understands which language and generally tend to be able to match the language to the listener. There’s also research that shows that in school for example they work out that it’s okay to switch and mix languages when chatting to friends but not when talking to the teacher.


This is something you can talk about with your partner and come to a decision. And it’s something only you will be able to know for yourselves. My attitude is, if it works for your family, that’s great. If it doesn’t feel right for your family, that’s fine too- your approach has to match your family circumstances and values. If you don’t use OPOL that does not mean your child will lose out when to comes to languages.


#4 Use the minority language at home. This is where both parents agree to use the minority language at home. Your child will then pick up the community language outside the home or in child care or preschool, playing with neighbours and so on. What if you’re worried about your level of ability in a minority language that’s not your strongest language? There’s mixed evidence about this. I read two papers recently where the advice was to speak your strongest language with your child because then your input is error free. However, my Serbian friend reports that her son never picked up any of her errors in English. Minority language at home does give your child a rich environment for developing that language. And is likely to be an effective way for them to develop language ability in the minority languages. They will pick up the community language easily as it is so pervasive. Another possibility is


#5 Time and Place where you choose a time and/or a place where you will speak each language. So you might decide to speak one language at dinner if you have family dinners. Ana Paula Mumy, a bilingual SLP has a lovely activity where you let your child pick the language – you put the flags for the country into a bag and they pick at random and decide for how long or on what topic. Doing it this way does require a lot of focus on your part but if that’s what works for you, then that’s great. You can only do this your own way.


#6 Mix it all up is where you use all of your languages with your child; whatever feels right to you at the time. No hard and fast rules here. One downside though is that your child might be more likely to use the community language as time goes on and lose ability in the home language(s). You can keep speaking the home language(s) so that their understanding continues to develop but home languages need more than occasional use in order to thrive.


So what works for you and your family? Be sure to leave a comment below. If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.


What I read so you don’t have to!

Rosenback, R. (2014). Bringing Up A Bilingual Child. UK: Filament Publishing.

Cunningham-Andersson, U. & Andersson, S. (2002). Growing Up With Two Languages. London: Routledge

Paradis J. & Genesee, F. (2011) Dual Language Development & Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism & Second Language Learning (Communication and Language Intervention). USA: Brookes.

Baker, C. (2014) Parents’ & Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. (4th ed.) Uk: Multilingual Matters