Bilingualism means more than the ability to speak two languages. Robert Stechuk, UnidosUS’s director of early childhood education programs, maintains that it’s a valuable personal and cultural resource children need to develop thinking skills, cultural heritage and to form identity. “To discourage bilingualism,” he says, “is to disrupt a normal and healthy part of growing up.”
In July 2022, Stechuk was part of the UnidosUS team that conducted parent focus groups at its affiliate AVANCE, which promotes school readiness for Latino children, in San Antonio, Tex. The parents whose children were receiving speech therapy described how therapists instructed them to use English only at home. One mother of a child with a hearing disability reported being told: “Try speaking to him in English. Don’t bring in any Spanish right now…. You don’t want to confuse him since he’s just starting to hear.”
Late last year, Stechuk and colleagues presented these findings at a session of the National Head Start Association Parent and Family Engagement Conference. They asked participants if speech therapists or other professionals had told them that growing up with two languages is “confusing” for children, and the response was immediate. “At least a dozen hands went up,” he recalls, and many personal stories came out.
“Some schools or early intervention personnel are still treating bilingualism as some kind of problem or disability,” Stechuk says.
MYTH #1: Young children can be “confused” by more than one language
MYTH #2: Multiple languages may compete with each other in the child’s brain
MYTH #3: Latino children with disabilities are “better off” if parents stop speaking Spanish in favor of speaking English.
When therapists offer misguided advice, Stechuk explains, there’s a danger that Latino families will question their own experience, possibly curtailing their interactions with their young children. Three out of four of these parents who participated in the UnidosUS focus groups, he says, are reading to their children on a daily basis, making time for this activity even when juggling multiple jobs and responsibilities. The therapists’ advice to stop speaking Spanish could actually undermine the communication skills it is intended to help.
“Shining a light on these issues is an important part of advancing a Prenatal to 3 movement of Latinx/a/o communities” says Amilcar Guzmán of the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, which supports the work of UnidosUS. “Capturing the voices of Latina parents is central to creating the supports necessary to enhance the lives of historically underinvested communities.”
“Latino families recognize the long-term benefits of bilingualism,” Stechuk says. “The heritage language is an asset children can draw upon throughout their lives.” Code switching, part of that, is widely understood as an effective communication strategy.
Evidently, however, at least some of ASHA’s 223,000 members and affiliates—audiologists and speech-language pathologists as well as the scientists and students who research how humans communicate—aren’t getting the message. The question is how to make sure that more professionals make better use of the brain science behind bilingualism.
“ASHA recognizes multilingualism as an asset,” says Megan-Brette Hamilton, PhD, CCC-SLP, chief staff officer for multicultural affairs at the organization. “It also recognizes that all children, with and without communication disorders, can become multilingual communicators in supportive, language-rich environments.” Hamilton adds that while many children are learning and speaking English in their educational settings, they still need to be able to communicate with their family and community and maintain a connection to their cultural-linguistic heritage.
“It’s not an ‘either/or’; it’s a ‘both/and.’”
Hamilton says the association advocates for an additive view of bi/multilingualism, and many clinicians partner with bilingual service providers or interpreters/culture brokers so both English and a child’s heritage language are supported in service delivery. “ASHA also makes it a point to provide its members with professional education that assures they consider and use current evidence-based practices that address and promote all languages of exposure.”
Stechuk notes that engaging colleges and universities who train speech language therapists, to make sure all early intervention practitioners take the evidence into account, is also a critical next step.
She contends that the English-only advice that many specialists dispense “is about bias, not data” and a misunderstanding of “difference” versus “disorder.” Just because people do things differently from us doesn’t mean they’re doing them wrong. In fact, we monolinguals might have something to learn. Marian’s “Bilingualism: Consequences for Language, Cognition, Development, and the Brain” includes these facts in a section on “What Clinicians Should Know”:
Bilingual children develop an earlier understanding of taxonomic relationships than their monolingual peers (e.g., car and bus are vehicles).
Linguistic input co-activates both languages in bilinguals; when bilinguals hear or read words in one language, partially overlapping linguistic structures in the other language also are activated.
Bilinguals have greater gray matter density than monolinguals in certain left hemisphere regions.
“If the brain is an engine,” she wrote in a 2017 editorial for Latino USA, “bilingualism may help to improve its mileage, allowing it to go further on the same amount of fuel.”
Confusion about Linguistic Confusion
Children manifest learning and speech disabilities regardless of bilingualism, says Fred Genesee, professor emeritus of psychology at McGill University. “Bilingualism doesn’t exacerbate disabilities, and it doesn’t make the impairments better, either.”
Genesee (who is speaking at the March 1 Crucial Conversations webinar) has also been researching bilingualism for decades. He traces the origins of the bias toward monolingualism to longstanding nationalistic, xenophobic beliefs and to flawed academic methods, specifically citing the German linguist Werner Leopold, who wrote about his own daughters’ linguistic confusion in the 1940s. (Read more.)
“It’s unlikely the brain is so limited,” Genesee says, noting that subsequent research has found that even newborns can distinguish between two languages, based on the rhythmic pattern (also known as prosody). His Myths about Early Childhood Bilingualism (2015) maintains, “Children who acquire two languages from birth achieve the same fundamental milestones in language development with respect to babbling, first words and emergence of word combinations as monolingual children within the same time frame despite the fact that they have less exposure, on average, to each language than monolinguals.”
Artificial restrictions on bilingualism, Genesee says, can jeopardize parent-child relationships as well as the neurocognitive benefits of rich language exposure or what he calls “vitamins and minerals for the brain.” Language is a key component of culture, literacy, communication, among other nutrients a young mind needs.
“The heritage language,” Genesee says, “is a part of who they are.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.