Does learning a second language work for everyone?

November 9, 2018

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Sure, I’m biased. My second major in college was in Spanish. My kids go to a Spanish immersion elementary school. We hosted a young woman from Chile for a year.

Bias aside, the ability to speak two languages is pretty cool. It boosts your resume. It makes travel abroad less intimidating. Research even suggests that knowing more than one language helps to prevent dementia, by serving as a kind of mental workout for your brain.

But what about children who struggle to speak one language? Can we expect them to learn a second?

The answer seems to be yes—at least in certain situations.

Believe it or not, children with limited vocabularies (even just a few words) can learn those words in more than one language. It seems that, if a child has mastered a certain label or concept, such as “apple” or “more,” the child can learn another name for that same item or concept.

In general, the outcome seems to depend on the support that exists for both languages in the child’s environment. Like anyone, a child with a language disorder will struggle to learn and maintain a language if it isn’t spoken frequently, either at home or at school. As long as there is rich immersion in the language in at least one environment, kids can learn the second language to the level of their overall language development.

The fact is that speaking two languages is crucial for many children. They may need one language for school, but without access to their family’s native language, they are cut off from the language-rich conversations of family members. Sometimes, there are older relatives who only speak the native language. Interactions with those family members are limited if the child hasn’t learned the second language.

If family members are still regularly using the native language in conversation at home, the child needs access to that language too.

When family members are encouraged to speak to their child in the language with which they are most comfortable, this provides the richest and most fluent language stimulation. On the other hand, well-meaning professionals who wrongly advise parents to speak to their child using only the language of the surrounding community, so as not to “confuse” the child, can inadvertently limit children’s language stimulation. The most language-rich input, with a wide vocabulary and variety of grammatical markers, is received from parents speaking fluently in their native language.

The bottom line: speak to your child in your native language, which you feel the most comfortable speaking. The stronger your child’s native language skills become, the stronger their skills will be in their second language. Remember, a label or concept learned in one language can be fairly easily learned in another language.

Sure, you may need to simplify your speech for a child with a language disorder, using shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary. But the same is true no matter what language you are speaking.

So go ahead, speak freely with your child in the language you feel the most comfortable, and rest assured that you are making the best choice for his or her language development.

For more information about early intervention services that LifeScape offers for young children with autism, including speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral therapy, Call us for details: In Sioux Falls, 605-444-9700. In Sioux City, 712-226-ABLE (2253). In Rapid City, 605-791-7400. 

Learn more about our therapy services here

                -Megan Wiessner, MA,CCC-SLP, Speech Language Pathologist, LifeScape