Bilingualism and Speech Delay, by Dr. Nancy Eng

Nancy Eng, Ph.D., CCC-SLP is a bilingual speech/language pathologist (Chinese- Cantonese/Mandarin/Toisanese and English) who is currently an Assistant Professor at Saint John's University. She is active in the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association (ASHA) where she is a member of its Legislative Council, representing New York State's interest in the profession. Because she is fluent in several dialects of Chinese, she has been recommended to many families who suspect their child to have possible language learning difficulties or else to families who are interested in raising their children bilingually. With Nancy’s permission, we have selected some of her answers to the questions of ChinaSprout’s visitors.

As a bilingual speech pathologist (Chinese-cantonese/mandarin/Toisanese and English), I have had the priviledge to work with many families who have adopted children from many places, including China. In looking at some of the questions posted in this Forum, along with those raised by families of children, I would like to respond by offering some general information regarding bilingual children in general. You should note that I do research in the area of bilingualism in healthy children and adults. Some particular interests of mine include the language acquisition process for bilingual children; the notion of language attrition in children; the manifestation of "language delay" in bilingual children.

First, there are some universals in the process of language acquistion. That is, no matter what language (s) a child hears around her, she will follow a similar course of language learning as her counterparts all over the world. There are "precursors" to language learning. For example, a child learns that one event "happens" and causes another to (happen): If I pull the cat's tail, it will yelp. As more of these skills are acquired, then children will learn to "map" language onto these experiences - it is at this point that children will develop different languages.

Secondly, in the course of bilingual children learning languages, one of two courses have been observed. In the first, the sequential bilingual is exposed to the second (to third) language after the first (usually after age three) has been firmly established. When the second language is introduced, the child then will figure out that "pencil" refers to the same thing as [bi], which is the writing instrument.

Another course of bilingualism is the simultaneous route. Here the child is exposed to two languages simultaneously. In most of these cases, there is a delay in the initial onset of verbal language - after all, the young child needs time to figure out that in fact both "pencil" and [bi] refer to the thing that is used for scribbling. In the first case, the sequential bilingual has the advantage of a more advanced cognitive base while in the later case, there is less "catching up" to do.

Finally, for children who lose most contact with or lose benefit from input of a native language, these children are in a state of an unnatural "language attrition". In the general sense, language attrition happens over a period of time; for example, the native language starts to drop out as the child starts school and acquires more skills in the second language.

For children who suddenly lose input from a native language, they are forced to deal with a language which is completely unfamiliar. This is particularly difficult, I suspect, for kids whose native and second languages are so markedly different i.e., Chinese and English as compared to French and Spanish. Some parents have tried to keep the Chinese in the home by using caregivers who speak the language or else provide culturally appropriate toys, activities, books, videos, etc. as a means of providing some input. I believe this is benefical to some degree however, I do not believe that this can be maintained over time. Many parents who use this approach have indicated to me that they wish their children to be "bilingual". Unfortunately, bilingualism is not cultivated in this manner. Recall your days of taking a language requirement in high school? Why don't you remember more than a few greetings in that language? Because in many cases, the language was taught devoid of any cultural connection - you did not learn to love the language and culture - it did not have much emotive value.

To learn more about Dr. Eng’s answer to ChinaSprout visitors questions, please click here.