Question

Hello, I was wondering if you have any research about children with Down syndrome becoming bilingual. Are there delays, concerns, benefits? I expect there are benefits, but it has been difficult to find much research about Down syndrome and bilingualism. Here is our story. I grew up in Peru speaking English and Spanish, both fluently. My wife grew up in Indonesia, speaking mostly English but also some Indonesian. We all speak English at home – with each other and with both our kids. Our oldest, who is 3, has attended a Spanish-immersion preschool this year and it has been good exposure to learning some basic Spanish. We live in the United States and are planning to move to Spain next year. Our youngest daughter, who has Down syndrome, is 2 years old. We wondered what the best approach would be for her education. Speech therapy for her will likely be in Spanish. Schooling, we are hoping, will be in English. There are both English-speaking British schools and Spanish-speaking Spanish schools in the city where we will live. Most of the research we have found so far about Down syndrome and bilingualism is about families where each parent has a different mother-tongue and only speaks their own language with their children. Because we are primarily English-speakers in our home, we’re not sure how much of that research “applies” to our situation. Thanks for any help you can give. Matt

Answer

Hello Matt,
Many thanks for your question which we read with interest. I will try and answer it as simply and clearly as possible. I do not see any problem with your daughter being bilingual. Having Down syndrome is not an obstacle for becoming bilingual. However, if I may, I think that if you wish your children to be bilingual with English and Spanish and if you speak English at home, I would suggest a local Spanish school, rather than an English-speaking one. This way you would have the two languages: Spanish being the language of school education and English being the language of home. I believe it will be easier for you to keep up their level in English as it will not be as difficult to find materials such as DVDs, books, games and any other types of resources in English, as it might be in Spanish. School and homework will be in Spanish, family life will be in English; your children will have a fair balance between the two languages you wish to raise them in. When homework is finished, you can have your family life in English: meals, games, everything in your everyday life will be in English. If the speech therapy you need for your daughter is in Spanish, it will be of help. Although I think you can find English-speaking speech therapists in Spain. I have also contacted university researchers in the US who are mainly interested in language and language impairment among bilingual children (English/Spanish). When they get back to me, I will pass their advice to you. I am also including some links which I hope will be of help. You will notice that most of the people writing on bilingualism among children with Down Syndrome are emphasizing the fact that a child with Down syndrome should be treated like any other child when exposed to two languages. (see Sue Buckley Bilingual children with Down Syndrome). Here’s another good piece of advice from Pamela Wilson from the site Children with Special Needs.
I hope I have answered your question. If not, please feel free to come back to us and do let us know how things are going on. We would be delighted to hear back from you and your family.
Dr. Isabelle Barth-O’Neill

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