More than 20% of children in the U.S. are bilingual, a number that continues to rise year over year (Kids Count Data Center, 2018). According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), there is a common misconception that being bilingual contributes to speech or language delays in children. However, it is important to note this is a difference, not a delay or disorder. Bilingual children may present with common speech patterns and phenomena that make it appear they are delayed or confused. Rather, these are common processes that occur when children are learning multiple languages.
Common Speech Patterns in Bilingual Children
- According to the ASHA, some common patterns that may come up for bilingual children include:
- “Interference or transfer errors”—errors made because the child is moving between two different languages.
- A “silent period” during which the individual focuses on listening and comprehension of the new language. In other words, the child likely understands much more of the language than she or he can say.
- “Code-switching”—changing languages during the course of a phrase or sentence—for example, beginning a sentence in English and finishing it in Spanish.
- Language loss or attrition—also called “subtractive bilingualism,” where a child may lose fluency in their primary language if they don’t practice it.
- “Accent, dialect, and phonetic patterns”—if a child is learning a language that contains sounds not present in their primary language, they may have difficulty with those sounds, which can make the sounds difficult to understand. There are many common articulation variations between English and Spanish that affect bilingual speakers (Frederick, 2005).
These patterns are typically not indicative of a speech disorder. Rather, there are aspects of bilingualism that speech therapists should be aware of when evaluating or treating a child. Parents and teachers who want to know whether a student should see a speech therapist can get guidance from the “Communication and the Bilingual Child” informational worksheet from Super Duper Publications (Vroom, 2003).
Tips for Bilingual Speech Therapy
Diagnosing and treating speech disorders for bilingual children is complex, and it has become even more complex due to the COVID-19 pandemic, because in many cases speech therapy is being done online rather than in person. There are, however, several strategies that speech therapists can use to be successful in supporting bilingual students both at home and online.
Involve and empower the parents. The most important thing that a speech therapist can do when evaluating a bilingual child—whether they are working in school, doing teletherapy, or are in private practice—is to get parents and caregivers involved. Even though they may not be bilingual themselves, parents are the most important members of the team. Speech therapists should aim to teach parents how to facilitate and encourage language strategies, so that they feel empowered and confident to use them in daily practices. Repetition and consistency are key when learning new concepts in any language. When helping their child practice language at home, parents are encouraged to talk slowly and use simple sentences, modeling words that the child will need to use often and reading books to the child (in both languages, if possible) to help the child develop vocabulary, sentence structure, and phonemic awareness (Vroom, 2003).
Encourage the strongest language to be modeled in the home. Ultimately, the goal of speech therapy is to empower the child to communicate efficiently and effectively. If parents are more confident and comfortable only with their native language, it is important to highlight strategies and skills in that language. Speech therapists can model the second language during sessions and help convey basic concepts and vocabulary. However, parents should aim to model language for their child in the language they feel most confident using. As they learn new words and concepts in the second language, they can also begin to introduce and model those during play or daily routines.
Consider the family’s culture. Sometimes concepts may be represented with a different word, depending on a family’s culture or dialect. Speech therapists should encourage and welcome families to share their culture and terminology. Speech therapists should be open to new vocabulary as well when working with families from different backgrounds.
Don’t forget about social-emotional learning. The speech therapist’s job includes connection as well as communication. It is important for speech therapists to look at the whole child to determine how they can best support them. Self-regulation and managing frustration are just as important as learning and using new concepts. Speech therapists should encourage mindfulness exercises and discussions of feelings and emotions and should practice positive affirmations. Encourage children to focus on what they can do and what skills they do have. Mental health and social-emotional learning (SEL) are important parts of speech therapy for both children and caregivers. Speech therapists should check in with families on a periodic basis to make sure their essential mental health and basic needs are being met.
Shifting to Online Speech Therapy
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many speech therapists moved their sessions with clients online. This brings up a host of other issues. The same general advice holds true for online speech therapy.
Parents are partners. The speech therapist should be checking in regularly with parents and should aim to involve them in sessions to empower them to carry over strategies once the session has ended.
As mentioned earlier, mental health and SEL are important parts of speech therapy. This becomes even more important during distanced learning because of the impact the pandemic has had on many families’ mental health, contributing to issues such as stress, isolation, and depression. Teachers and therapists should be aware of these concerns, as they may present as a barrier, slowing progress and producing carryover. If mental health and basic needs are not being met, it may be more difficult for parents and children to be fully present in sessions, as they are thinking of other concerns or worries.
Finally, it is important to structure the therapy session (and any homework for families) in a way that avoids making families feel like one more thing is being added to their already monstrous mental load. A great way to do this is by finding resources that are functional and simple for families to practice every day during daily routines that have already been established.
Simple, Effective Resources for Online Learning
It is important to use tools that the family can access to teach speech and language. Speech therapists should work with families to see what resources they ALREADY have and then teach them how to modify those resources to support speech and language development.
There are also many worksheets available through Teachers Pay Teachers websites, Super Duper Publications, and Boom Learning.
The bottom line is that while bilingualism can make diagnosing potential speech issues more complex, it is an amazing experience for the child and one that will benefit them for life. Embrace it! The U.S. Department of Education notes the many benefits of being bilingual, including cognitive development, social-emotional development, school readiness, and long-term success. Bilingualism should be encouraged, and with the right resources, teachers and speech therapists can empower parents with the skills they need to succeed.
Kids Count Data Center (2018). “The Number of Bilingual Kids in America Continues to Rise.” Annie E. Casey Foundation. https://datacenter.kidscount.org/updates/show/184-the-number-of-bilingual-kids-in-america-continues-to-rise#st%20decade
American Speech and Hearing Association (2020). “Bilingual Service Delivery.” www.asha.org/PRPSpecificTopic.aspx?folderid=8589935225§ion=Overview
Frederick, M. (2004). “Common Articulation Variations Between English and Spanish.” Super Duper® Handy Handouts™ Number 82. www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/82_commonArticulation.pdf
Vroom, J. (2003). “Communication and the Bilingual Child.” Super Duper® Handy Handouts™ Number 58. www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/58_Communication_and_Bilingual.pdf
U.S. Department of Education. “Talk, Read and Sing Together Every Day!” www2.ed.gov/documents/early-learning/talk-read-sing/bilingual-en.pdf
Super Duper Publications. www.superduperinc.com
Rachel Musial, MA, CCC-SLP is a bilingual pediatric speech-language pathologist in the Denver area. She has provided speech therapy in homes, in schools, and online with a focus on language, mindfulness, mental health, and play. Rachel provides guidance and resources for teachers, therapists, and parents through her Instagram (@speechwithrach), website (www.speechwithrach.com), and podcast (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/speech-with-rach/id1534168646). Rachel also leads courses and seminars that empower SLPs to be confident and knowledgeable models of communication.