Recommending Monolingualism to Multilinguals – Why, and Why Not

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In cases of suspected or confirmed clinical disorder among bilingual/multilingual children, one common recommendation is to have the children “switch to one language.” This advice comes both from monolingual SLPs, who are trained in and for monolingual settings, and from multilingual SLPs, including those working in multilingual contexts. I would like to offer a few thoughts on the practical feasibility of this advice, the reasons that may motivate it, and whether those reasons match what we know about multilingualism and speech-language disorders.

Recommending monolingualism to multilinguals seems to draw on a conviction that multilingualism either causes or worsens speech-language and related disorders or, conversely, that monolingualism either blocks or alleviates them. Speech disorders (such as stuttering), language disorders (such as SLI), and developmental disorders (such as autism) do affect language, in that linguistic development relates to physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. But language development can be typical or atypical regardless of the number of languages in a child’s repertoire. Speech-language and developmental clinical conditions affect multilinguals and monolinguals alike, which means that there is no correlation between multilingualism, or monolingualism, and disorder. In the absence of a correlation, there can be no legitimate conclusion that using one language vs. using more than one has predictable effects upon disorder. The unwarranted conviction that number of languages is a relevant factor of speech-language disorder rests on a number of beliefs, as follows.

First, the belief that healthy linguistic and related development can only be achieved in a single language. Multilingual children naturally develop linguistically in all the languages that they need to use for everyday purposes. Cognitive, social and emotional development follows suit, through each of the contexts in which the languages of a multilingual are relevant. Multilinguals, big and small, use each of their languages in different ways. This is in fact why they are multilinguals: if a single language served all their purposes, they would be monolinguals.

Each of the languages of a multilingual naturally reflects the specific uses that it serves, and each will develop accordingly, at its own pace. If a child uses, say, one language with mum, another one with dad, and yet another one in school, each language will naturally show evidence of mum-related, dad-related and school-related accent, vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics. Having different words or a different number of words in each language, for example, or preferring to use one language rather than another for specific topics or with different people, is typical of multilingualism, not a sign of atypical linguistic competence. A less developed language of a multilingual is therefore not a symptom of a clinical condition such as ‘language delay’, but reflects instead less use of that language than of another. If there are concerns about the development of a particular language of a multilingual, the child may be appropriately referred to a language tutor, not to an SLP.

Second, the belief that using more than one language results in diminished proficiency both in each language and in other proficiency. This belief draws on subtractive views of the human brain, which have it as a computer-like processor featuring limited storage capacity, organised into computer-like modules and processing modes. On this view, ‘brain space’ allocated to each language disrupts other brain space, by encroaching upon it in ways similar to zero-sum situations, where the gains and losses of one ‘module’ exactly match the losses and gains of another, respectively. Computer analogies of the human brain gained popularity by the middle of last century, but current findings about inherent brain plasticity prove their inadequacy to model brain organisation, activity and power.

Third, the belief that using one particular language in one setting will promote development of that language in other settings. The recommendation to switch to one language often means ‘switch to exclusive use of the mainstream language at home.’ Even in cases where it might be viable to change or amend the home language practices in which a child has been brought up, switching to a mainstream language at home, or making it the only home language, will not necessarily impact uses of that language elsewhere, for example in school. The converse is also true: academic uses of a language, say, do not automatically transfer to home uses of the same language, because these uses belong to different registers.

“Register” is a term used in linguistics to describe the differential ways in which we all use our languages to fit specific contexts and specific people. Monolingual children (and adults) switch among the registers that they have learnt to be appropriate at home, in school, at work, or with peers, juniors and elders. Multilinguals do likewise: they switch register in each of their languages, in order to match the participants and the context of an interaction in a particular language, and they switch language, again where participants and context so require. The ability to switch uses of language appropriately constitutes proof of linguistic competence, because it shows understanding of how different registers and/or different languages serve different purposes. A home language, or a home register, develops for home-use purposes, which do not and cannot match academic and other uses of it. The way to promote development of languages or registers in a specific context is to use them in that context.

Finally, the belief that language disorder is best addressed through a single language of intervention. The mainstream language favoured by recommendations of monolingualism often coincides with the language of education, that the child may, in addition, happen to share with the clinician. This raises the question of whether the recommendations are indeed meant to favour monolingualism, or to favour monolingualism in a particular language, the language in which assessment instruments are likely to be more readily available. Whichever the case may be, current research on clinical work with multilingual children shows that intervention which targets the whole of a child’s linguistic repertoire increases both the chances and the pace of recovery. Addressing linguistic repertoires for purposes of intervention makes good overall sense, in that language disorders affect the whole of a child’s linguistic repertoire, regardless of the number of languages involved. Diagnosis must take the whole child into account, so that intervention can start from where the child’s abilities are, whether these abilities are monolingual or multilingual.

Depending on the context of specific interactions, typical monolinguals and multilinguals alike make proficient use of their linguistic repertoires, which means differential use of linguistic resources. The whole linguistic repertoire of a monolingual child translates into resources drawn from a single language, but the whole linguistic repertoire of a multilingual child does not. Beliefs and convictions to the contrary, such as the ones sketched above, rest on a misconception of monolingualism as “norm” of language use, which has spawned related misconceptions that take proficiency in a single language for linguistic health, and lack of proficiency in a single language for symptom of language disorder. Being multilingual involves differential proficiency in more than one language, whose interplay with social, cognitive and emotional development can only be ascertained from observation of the child’s abilities in each appropriate context.

The take-home message that I would like to leave here is that multilingualism is neither a disorder nor a factor of disorder. In cases of suspected or confirmed clinical disorder among bilingual/multilingual children, switching to a single language will not address the disorder. It will simply create a monolingual child with a disorder.

 

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD in Linguistics and Phonetics (University of Manchester, UK), researches multilingualism and child language. One section of her book Multilingual Norms addresses multilingual clinical assessment. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with the use of several languages at home, in school and in clinic.

Comments

  1. Beatriz Pestana-Osuna, SLP says:

    Madalena, THANK YOU!! for addressing such important topic. I could not agree with you more! I am a bilingual Speech/Language Pathologist who also uses more than two languages daily in varied settings! we have a lot of work ahead of us, as most SLPs, as you mentioned in this article, have been trained solely from a monolingual theoretical perspective and background.

  2. Wonderful that you found this post of use to you, Beatriz! I believe that exciting times are ahead of us all, SLPs, teachers, parents, linguists, now that old-fashioned misconceptions about multilingualism and multilinguals are being understood, and we are able to address them from informed standpoints.
    A lot of work yet to be done, just as you say, and all of it to give our little ones the fair deal that they deserve.
    Madalena

  3. What a wonderful straight forward manner to address these issues! I am a trilingual SLP (Portuguese, Spanish, English) working with diverse populations and very much appreciate your insight! Do you have any literature concerning raising multilingual children? I am currently completing a longitudinal study of my daughter’s simultaneous bilingual language development (learning Portuguese/English in an English dominant community/culture) and would like more literature on the topic as I analyze my results. Thank you again for sharing with us!

  4. Ana Paula, one book I wrote about my children’s trilingual development, from age 0 (literally!) up to their early teens, may be of interest to you. They acquired Portuguese and Swedish from birth, and English as school language. The book’s title is _Three is a Crowd?_, published by Multilingual Matters, and parts of it are accessible online: http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?isb=9781853598388

    These two pages at my blog _Being Multilingual_ have links to a few other resources of mine:
    http://beingmultilingual.blogspot.com/p/multilinguals-are-book-reviews_27.html
    http://beingmultilingual.blogspot.com/p/more-about-multilinguals.html

    Do contact me privately about this and other literature on child multilingualism, if you so wish? My email address is available from my blog site. I’m otherwise happy to exchange and discuss literature here, of course! I got quite curious about your website and your own research.

    Muito obrigada for your comment to my post!

    Madalena

  5. Emily Bailon says:

    Hi Madalena,

    Thanks for writing this article. I am a graduate student who speaks Spanish and English and I hope to have a career working with multilingual children. In your post you say, “… current research on clinical work with multilingual children shows that intervention which targets the whole of a child’s linguistic repertoire increases both the chances and the pace of recovery.” Could you recommend any specific articles that address and confirm this statement?

    Thanks so much!

    Emily

  6. Emily, thank you for asking! Here are a few references for you:

    ** Elin Thordardottir (2006). ‘Language Intervention from a Bilingual Mindset’, in _The ASHA Leader_: http://www.asha.org/Publications/leader/2006/060815/f060815a/

    ** Brian Goldstein & Leah Fabiano (2007). Assessment and Intervention for Bilingual Children with Phonological Disorders, in _The ASHA Leader_: http://www.asha.org/Publications/leader/2007/070213/f070213a/

    ** Kathryn Kohnert (2007). ‘Supporting Two Languages in Bilingual Children with Primary Developmental Language Disorders’, at http://www.speechpathology.com/articles/supporting-two-languages-in-bilingual-1218
    This piece is taken from Kathryn Kohnert’s book _Language Disorders in Bilingual Children and Adults_, book URL: http://www.pluralpublishing.com/publication_ldibcaa.htm

    ** The second, updated edition of Brian Goldstein’s collection, _Bilingual Language Development and Disorders in Spanish-English Speakers_, is planned for this year.
    Several chapters deal with multilingual intervention, particularly Kathryn Kohnert & Ann Derr’s chapter ‘Language Intervention with Bilingual Children’, which includes a wealth of resources and practical suggestions for use in clinic.
    Book URL: http://www.brookespublishing.com/store/books/goldstein-71714/index.htm

    I hope these pointers will be of use to you!
    Come back any time?

    Madalena

  7. marianne mount says:

    How does the speed of learning one language compare with the speed of learning two languages at the same time?

  8. Thanks – this article was very useful to read and answered a few questions I have been pondering recently. I am a monolingual Speech Therapist and have worked with a caseload where over 70% are from bilingual backgrounds since I qualified 8 years ago so I have lots of experience with working with children developing more than one language. I feel that being a master of more than one language is an amazing skill and wish I could use more than one. I have always given the advice that bilingualism should be encouraged wherever possible – I have seen so many families where they have been advised to stick to one language (usually English which is the language used at school) but at least one parent may not be competent or confident using this language which results in lots of complications such as the child receiving an incorrect model (I advise that a good model of any language is better than a bad model- do you agree?) also if the child only speaks English and the extended family and the community use a different language they will miss out on some valuable social situations and this will affect the relationships they can form with their family members. I have recently been surprised that so many other professionals advise parents of children with special needs to use only 1 language, and they follow the advice as they want to do what is best!

    • Katy, thank you so much for sharing your professional experience and your thoughts. It’s exactly as you say: forcing monolingualism among multilingual populations is as counter-productive as the converse would be, in terms of linguistic, social, emotional models, simply because it is unnatural.

      Prescribing monolingualism leaves parents in multilingual families with no choice to speak of, really. If they condone it, they end up blamed for uprooting their children from languages and cultures which belong to them; if they don’t, they end up blamed for their children’s disorder.

      Like you, I’ve often wondered whether those who take monolingualism for therapy realise this, and why this kind of advice endures.

      Madalena

  9. Nathalie Hickson says:

    Dear Madelena, I am so pleased to have seen your blog and all the resources & articles on multilingualism. I was brought up speaking French & English with some Vietnamese influence. I then studied German & Spanish. I graduated in French & German ( although would have loved Spanish) and lived between France, Germany & hols in Spain. Following a long break and not using them, I now teach all 4 languages and am setting up a company Languages4tous and also Chameleon yoga, to use my passions & to promote languages & yoga/mindfulness with some neuroscience.
    I also wish to find an MA or Msc to study this all in the future but not sure there is just one! Am also thinking of studying abroad.
    My daughter speaks French, a little German & Spanish as well as Polish from her Step Mum which I know nothing about so she teaches me. I should def write more on my blog as well. As a result of this wealth of cultures & languages, I find mono lingualism & Englishness, v. uninspiring & uninteresting and am fascinated by multilingualism as well as yoga/mindfulness including neuroplasticity & personality.
    Thankfully, am beginning to meet more people who are multilingual, as I know this is the norm but not always apparent.
    My Brother lives with his family in Montreal so being brought up bi-lingually.
    I am pleased that there has been some development from the 70’s when I was growing up but there still needs to be more and hopefully we can encourage it.
    Merci/Danke/Gracias
    Nathalie

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