Bilingualism and Children with Language and/or Cognitive Disabilities

Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Professor, School of Human Communication Disorders, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Dr. Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird (Ph.D. Madison, Wisconsin) is a Professor in the School of Human Communication Disorders at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research and teaching is in the area of child language development and disorders, with a particular focus on children and adolescents with Down syndrome. Her publications and presentations have focused upon a variety of topics including: cultural and linguistic diversity, language and literacy development, and the effectiveness of speech, language and literacy interventions. Elizabeth is a speech-language pathologist, certified with both the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA) and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). She is currently the President of the Speech and Hearing Association of Nova Scotia (SHANS). As Annick DeHouwer stated in 1999, “Bilingualism is most often a necessity, not a choice”. What this means is that many children live in environments that require them to speak and understand two languages. This is true whether or not a child has a language, or cognitive impairment. The need to be bilingual cuts across disability boundaries. Unlike children with typical development, however, parents of children with language and/or cognitive disabilities are often told by professionals to expose their children to only one language, even when their child needs to learn two languages to communicate fully and effectively in their everyday lives (e.g., Paradis, 2007; Thordardottir, 2002). I believe that this is not an appropriate recommendation, for two reasons. First, it will isolate the child from important communicative contexts and deny the child the social benefits of being bilingual. Second, bilingual parents may find speaking the chosen language, or only one language, uncomfortable and unnatural. This, in turn, may negatively affect the quality parents’ ability to facilitate language development in their children through their interactions. Instead, I feel it is critical to help families optimize bilingual development for their children with disabilities who need to learn two languages. Read More »