Early literacy support in the home language for emergent bilingual children and their families

Mural about literacy

Photo by Urban Aquarium Video and Light

We have limited research and understanding regarding the needs of preschool children from bilingual backgrounds. Our knowledge is even more limited when we consider preschool children with language impairment and communication disorders from Non-English-speaking homes. Most of the services available to these children are in English, and there is limited support for the home language. In fact, there is a prevailing notion among parents and educators that children with language impairments cannot learn two languages and should only be exposed to one language. This notion should come as no surprise, given that even among the parents of typically developing bilingual children, there is confusion regarding bilingual language acquisition. The Head Start Dual-Language Report (2008) revealed that Non-English-speaking parents of children in Head Start described thinking that learning the home language could interfere with their children’s ability to learn English. These parents also reported making an effort to only use English at home, even though their English proficiency was limited and communication with their children had suffered.

Reading this report reminded me of meeting a Portuguese-speaking mother of an 18-year old girl with language impairment. This meeting took place many years ago. At the time, I gave a parent workshop and reassured parents that it was fine to use their home language with their children. My message was to love and to nurture their children in the language that could best facilitate a constant flow of communication—the family language in most cases. When my talk was over, the Portuguese mother came over and through tears described how she had stopped talking to her daughter around the age of 5 years, when advised to not use their native language at home. This mother described how their communication had suffered and the distancing that took place over time between her daughter and the rest of the family. It is difficult for me to understand what it must feel like for parents to not be able to talk to their children for fear of hurting them. The idea that using language can hurt is certainly alien to me as a speech-language pathologist.

However, whenever I pose the question of whether children with language impairment should learn more than one language, the responses I get are invariably mixed. In a recent poll among speech-language pathology students, I found nearly 50% thinking that exposure to two languages was not a good idea for children with language impairments. When I ask preschool teachers, responses can be even more biased toward English. And parents are the most confused—they often say English, but then confess to not being able to speak English fluently. It is indeed sad. I should also mention the countless number of times I have heard teaching staff say “speak English” to a child who comes from a Non-English-speaking home. This is clearly not a welcoming message to a young developing mind.

As speech-language pathologists, we must reassure parents that communication in the home language is an important aspect of social-emotional and language development for their children. Promoting early literacy in the home language and supporting parents in their efforts are best practices when working with emergent bilingual children.

Elizabeth Ijalba, Ph.D., CCC-SLP is Assistant Professor in Linguistics and Communication Disorders at Queens College, CUNY. She formed the Bilingual/Biliteracy Lab and conducts research in early-literacy and home-language stimulation with Non-English-speaking parents of children with language impairment.