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.