August 15, 2006 Feature

Language Intervention from a Bilingual Mindset

see also

As the number of children from diverse linguistic backgrounds steadily increases, most speech-language pathologists can expect to encounter such children on their caseloads. Yet most do not feel adequately prepared for this task.

For people who have grown up and lived in predominantly monolingual communities, it is natural to view monolingualism as the natural default setting and bilingualism as unfamiliar and complicated. What if we turn this around and put ourselves in the shoes of those who have always lived in multilingual communities? For them, the thought of a child who speaks only one language is unthinkable.

If we start to look at the situation from a different perspective-from a bilingual mindset-our criteria change instantly. Bilingualism is normal-it's not an unfortunate reality with which children must cope, but is merely one of a number of types of language environments. Development in two languages is in some ways different from monolingual development, but it is not more difficult and it does not cause language impairment. Many questions arise in intervention with bilingual children who have communication impairments. Seeing the situation from a bilingual mindset gives a clinician a good start.

A Variety of Backgrounds

Bilingual children come from a variety of environments and backgrounds. They vary in the age at which they became bilingual, in the settings in which they use each of their languages, the extent to which they must rely on these languages and for which purposes, and the extent to which they are motivated to learn both languages. It is important to consider these factors carefully to determine the most appropriate course of action in individual cases. However, we must not forget that bilingual children are, above all, children. As such they come with a set of characteristics, personalities, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and wants and needs that have nothing to do with whether they speak one language or two.

The general factors that facilitate language development in monolingual children apply equally to bilingual children. These include well-known fundamental strategies such as targeting developmentally appropriate and functional skills, using meaningful and motivating materials and activities that are pragmatically and culturally appropriate, allowing children to make maximal use of all of the resources that they bring to the task, and promoting in them a sense of pride in their languages and cultures and in their skill as bilingual speakers.

Conversely, in effective clinical intervention we attempt to avoid strategies that are artificial or that could be perceived as too forceful, those that put children on the spot or make them self-conscious about their performance. Some of our traditional methods for bilingual children have incorporated strategies that are not maximally language-facilitating because they were designed from a monolingual mindset.

Choosing Bilingualism

Popular views about bilingualism have changed tremendously over the past decades, from predominantly negative to predominantly positive. Evidence shows that bilingualism does not impair language. It is a feasible and reasonable goal even for children with language and developmental deficits.

More than 25 years ago, research from Canada showed that preschoolers with language impairment (LI) who were enrolled in bilingual immersion programs performed as well as peers enrolled in monolingual programs, providing evidence that bilingual environments are not too demanding for these children (Bruck, 1982). In Canada it is common for parents to voluntarily enroll their English-speaking children in school settings where instruction takes place in English and French. This situation is different from contexts in which bilingualism is not a choice and may not be viewed positively. Research indicates that bilingualism works best when it is seen as desirable and beneficial (Gardner & Lambert, 1959).

Contrary to the view that bilingual learning is more difficult than monolingual learning, several experimental studies show that bilingual children learn new vocabulary in their second language (L2) more rapidly when it is initially presented in their first language (L1), (Perozzi & Sanchez, 1992). Only a few studies to date have examined the language learning of bilingual children with LI. However, in a clinical intervention study comparing the efficacy of a monolingual intervention to that of a bilingual intervention in which both languages were used within the same therapy session, the bilingual method was more efficacious, with the child learning more English words in bilingual sessions than in monolingual sessions (Thordardottir, Ellis Weismer, & Smith, 1997).

More evidence that bilingualism is not detrimental to children with LI comes from recent research showing that bilingual children did not make more frequent or different errors in productive verb inflectional morphology than monolingual children (Paradis, Crago, Genesee, & Rice, 2003). While this research focused on a narrow aspect of language, the aspect addressed has been found to be vulnerable in LI. Concerns about bilingualism tend to be heightened in the case of children with more severe developmental disorders, such as autism and Down syndrome. However, a recent study showed that bilingual children with Down syndrome evidenced language characteristics similar to those documented for their monolingual counterparts (Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2005).

Intervention Strategies

Traditionally, avoidance of bilingualism was routinely recommended for children with developmental deficits and indications are that this practice is still widespread. A growing body of evidence indicates that we can safely let go of this negative view. However, our traditional apprehensions about bilingualism are visible in areas other than in this recommendation, and have colored many of our intervention strategies. In particular, many strategies aim to promote a strict separation between languages.

The one-parent/one-language strategy dictates that each parent of a child growing up in a mixed-language home adhere strictly to one language whenever speaking to the child. Interestingly, evidence shows that even willing parents are not very successful in implementing this approach. One of the reasons may be the highly artificial nature of this strategy. It is commonplace for bilingual individuals to switch between languages (code-switch) in various ways and for purposes that do not relate to confusion, especially in interactions with other bilingual individuals. The strict adherence of a bilingual parent to one language only when speaking with their child might, therefore, be seen as pragmatically inappropriate and may be misunderstood by the child, who may entertain different hypotheses as to why the parent in question refuses to speak this particular language with him or her in spite of speaking it with other people.

Efforts to reduce code-switching in bilingual children are based on the misguided belief that such behavior reflects confusion. Similarly, efforts to artificially enforce language separation reflect the belief that it is helpful for bilingual children to focus on only one language at a time. However, this is not the way that bilingual speakers use their languages. In fact, in spite of the widespread acceptance of the one-parent/one language strategy, there is no evidence indicating that it facilitates language development. Given the frequency of code-switching among bilingual speakers, this linguistic behavior in bilingual children might more appropriately be considered an emerging skill. Intervention methods for bilingual children should mirror the natural ways in which bilingual speakers use language.

Another way language separation often is promoted for bilingual children is through avoidance of bilingual educational settings. In Canada, for example, where bilingualism is viewed positively overall, children with developmental delays are nevertheless frequently directed to monolingual schools. This view reflects an attempt at simplifying the children´s task in the teaching environment. The same purpose is reflected in the public school system in Quebec, where immigrant children must by law attend French school. These children are initially placed in welcoming classes where instruction of content is postponed until they have acquired a level of proficiency in French. Both of these strategies are rooted in a monolingual mindset, which so easily leads us to devise strategies that are based on assumptions that turn out to be invalid in a bilingual context.

Bilingual language learning is a normal process and attempts to simplify it are not only unnecessary but may be counterproductive. The pragmatic inappropriateness of an artificially imposed language separation was discussed. In the welcoming classes just mentioned, French is modeled solely by the teacher and learning French from peers in a meaningful context is precluded as all of the children in the class are at a beginner level in French and often lack motivation to speak it. Further, placement in this special class does not promote social interaction with native speakers of French who are in mainstream classes.

Learning Languages

Some of the issues that must be considered in intervention with individual bilingual children are illustrated by the child who participated in the bilingual clinical intervention study mentioned above (Thordardottir et al., 1997). This child of kindergarten age, whose family was from Iceland but resided in the United States, had demonstrated significant language delays from preschool age and a recommendation had been made that the child be raised monolingually. However, elimination of his native language would have had negative emotional consequences for the family and limited his ability to communicate with the extended family. The parents did not speak English well enough to be adequate English models.

Elimination of English was not possible either because it was required for school and social settings. It was hypothesized that a bilingual intervention approach might be more advantageous for this child because 1) it would not restrict the use of his resources-a bilingual child's language knowledge extends across both languages, and 2) acknowledgment of and use of the child's native language would affirm the clinician's acceptance of the value of that language and associated culture. A bilingual approach also can enhance learning of both languages.

In those cases where the clinician cannot use both languages of the child and a referral to a bilingual clinician is not possible, the clinician can show a positive attitude toward the child's native language by not discouraging or banning the child's use of that language, and by showing interest in the child's language and culture. A monolingual clinician can incorporate some use of the child's home language by asking the child to translate words from that language and by including a parent, relative, or a native-speaking assistant within the therapy session. Parents can be encouraged to work with the child at home by reading to their child and using language facilitating activities. They should do so in their own language even if it is not the language of therapy. The goal for a bilingual child is not to learn the language of therapy, but to learn language. Evidence suggests that a strong base in the first language promotes learning a second language.

Performance and Assessment

A full understanding of the ideal ways in which bilingual children should be assessed or treated will require further study. However, available research has provided some crucial answers, the most important of which may be that 1) bilingualism should not be discouraged for children with language impairment, and 2) successful bilingualism is promoted by a positive, confident, and relaxed attitude and by naturalistic language-facilitating contexts.

The performance of bilingual children must be judged in relation to a bilingual rather than a monolingual reference. Assessment of language proficiency must take both languages into account and expectations as to rate of progress in intervention must consider the amount of input received in each language. Assessment for these purposes also must adequately consider the structural and pragmatic differences between languages, which result in different sequences of acquisition and different age expectations cross-linguistically in various domains of language (Thordardottir, Rothenberg, Rivard & Naves, in press). Often, what bilingual children need is not more aggressive intervention, but just a little time.

When we encounter children who do not seem to be successful at achieving bilingual acquisition, the best answer may not be to reconsider bilingualism, but to reconsider the teaching approach. In an interview study, parents of bilingual children with Down syndrome commented that they wished the professionals they worked with along the way, including SLPs, had been more enthusiastic and supportive of their decision to raise their children bilingually (Thordardottir, 2002). Parents listen carefully to professional advice and, in this case, what they needed was reassurance. It will be long before we have all the answers about intervention for bilingual children, but we know enough to provide support to the parents of our bilingual clients. We can say with confidence that bilingualism is an attainable goal for all children. It is up to us to help provide the right contexts for successful bilingual development.

Elin Thordardottir, a speech-language pathologist, is an associate professor at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Contact her at

cite as: Thordardottir, E. (2006, August 15). Language Intervention from a Bilingual Mindset. The ASHA Leader.


Bruck, M. (1982). Language impaired children's performance in an additive bilingual education program. Applied Psycholinguistics, 3, 45-60.

Gardner, R. & Lambert, W. (1959). Motivational variables in second-language acquisition. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 13, 266-272.

Kay-Raining Bird, E., Cleave, P., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A, & Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 14, 187-199.

Paradis, J., Crago, M., Genesee , F., & Rice, M. (2003). French-English bilingual children with SLI: How do they compare with their monolingual peers? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 46, 113-127.

Perozzi, J. & Sanchez, M. (1992). The effects of instruction in L1 on receptive acquisition in L1 on receptive acquisition of L2 for bilingual children with language delay. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 23, 348-352.

Thordardottir, E. (2002). Parents' views on language impairment and bilingualism. Presented at the annual ASHA convention, Atlanta, November.

Thordardottir, E., Ellis Weismer, S. & Smith, M. (1997). Vocabulary learning in bilingual and monolingual clinical intervention. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 13, 215-227.

Thordardottir, E., Rothenberg, A., Rivard, M.-E. & Naves, R. (in press). Bilingual assessment: Can overall proficiency be estimated from separate measurement of two languages? Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders. 


Advertise With UsAdvertisement