Bilingual parents – what to do if you are told to drop a language?

by | Jan 29, 2014 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Language development, Practical advice, Top 10 most read posts | 21 comments

Bilingual parents – what to do if you are told to drop a language?

This is post I wish I wouldn’t have to write, and I had hoped advising parents to stick to only one language would be a thing of the past.
But it isn’t.
Only last week I was contacted by two worried parents from different parts of the world who had been told that their use of more than one language in the family is detrimental to their child’s language development and that they should change to using only one language – the majority one. Sigh.

Dropping a home language is not beneficial for learning the majority language.

Earlier research which indicated that bilingualism would be detrimental to a child’s language development is based on inappropriate testing methods for bilinguals, as explained in the article “Bilingualism – Consequences for Language, Cognition, Development, and the Brain”

“Bilinguals often are assessed in only one language, providing an inaccurate assessment of the child’s actual level of linguistic and cognitive development. A child assessed in only one language, typically that of the country in which he or she is being tested (i.e., English in the United States, often the second and less-proficient language), may be placed erroneously at a lower level of cognitive development than his or her true level.”

This is to say, a monolingual child who knew the right word for three objects (= three words) in one language was considered to be more advanced than a bilingual child who knew two out of the three objects, but knew the words in two different languages (= four words).

The way bilingual children learn a language is different from monolingual children and what may on the surface seem to be a delay in vocabulary learning is actually a different learning pattern. Bilingual children catch up soon enough, and they gain an array of benefits alongside another language (see last week’s post Bilingual is better – the advantages of speaking more than one language).

What about children with autism or other developmental issues? Should their parents stick to only one language? In her article ‘Is Bilingualism detrimental for Children With Autism?’ Dr Susanne Döpke states that

”There is no research evidence to suggest that hearing more than one language makes the symptoms of autism worse or that the English-only advice improves the abilities of children with autism – language-wise, conceptual or social.”

The Canadian charity The Hanen Centre which specialises in helping “young children develop the best possible language, social and literacy skills” recommends that parents should not give up on any of the family languages:

“It is widely accepted that parents should be encouraged to communicate with their children in their home language, and that professionals working with the child should support the family’s home language.”

Then we come to the crucial question – what to do if you are a parent in a family with more than one language and you are advised to drop one (or more) of your languages?

First of all ask yourself whether the person advising you has the necessary knowledge about bilingual children. The likelihood is that they don’t as they wouldn’t be telling you to drop a language if they did. Then think about the motivation behind the recommendation – how would it benefit the person if your child would only speak one language (normally the majority language)? I do sympathise with child minders and teachers, who have groups with many children whose first language is not the language of the education system, and I admire their engagement and commitment, but asking parents to drop a family language is not the right approach. A strong home language supports the acquisition of another language and parents should be given advice on other ways to help their children to improve their language skills. If you do feel concerned about your bilingual child’s language development, get in touch with a specialist who is familiar with bilingualism.

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  1. Jonathan

    I think that what you say in the last paragraph about checking whether the person telling you to give up a language actually knows all that much about bilingualism. Now and again, I hear people saying things about bilingualism and bilingual education that are quite obviously not true and somewhat outdated.

    • Rita Rosenback

      Your are right, Jonathan. The sad thing is that if the advice comes from a professional, many parents find it difficult not to follow it.

      • Jonathan

        I think that it’s wrong for a professional to give advice on bilingualism if it’s not a topic that they actually know all that much about.

        • Rita Rosenback

          I absolutely agree, but unfortunately it still happens. Much less so than before, when speech therapists were during their training instructed to recommend parents to stick to one language. This is no longer the case, but there are still deep-rooted misconceptions that will take years to disappear. In the meantime, all we can do is to spread the word.

  2. melanie

    a few years back when my daughter was still a baby i want for a checkup and was speaking yo her in french and english the doctor told me to stick to only one language so it would be easier for her to speak,i didn’t follow her advice,now my daughter understand perfectly french and english and will speak french when she want!.as far as i’m concerned i didn’t regret not following her advice,

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for sharing your story, Melanie. I am glad that your daughter is growing up as a bilingual – well done to you! Depending on which language she will be speaking at nursery/school you might want to increase the use of whichever is the minority language, so she will have continuous exposure to it.

  3. Trilingual Mama

    This is a fantastic article Rita! This is our best armor to protect and strengthen ourselves with all of this wonderful research that proves not only that multilingualism is not detrimental, but of invaluable benefits to our children. Thanks for doing the homework for us, Rita!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for your lovely feedback! The more we can do together to support the cause of bilingual children and bilingualism in general the better 🙂

  4. Anna

    Great blog, very inspiring! My daughter can hear 4 languages on daily basis. People often comment that we should eliminate at least one language but currently it is not possible.

  5. alexpolistigers

    I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to stop speaking my native language to my children and use the community language instead. Especially with regards to my youngest, who has developmental delays and suspected autism, I’ve been accused of deliberately sabotaging his development, causing him to regress or just confusing him. All these from health care professionals, mental health specialists, speech therapists and teachers. I have ignored them all so far. When I point out that my son shows clear signs of understanding both languages, (he doesn’t speak) I am either told it is coincidence, or they say “just think how much more he would understand if you were monolingual!”. If I ask about the research they are using to base this advice on, I am told I am too pushy and I am dealing in things I don’t understand! I’m really fed up with it. But I’ve still no intention of limiting my children and stopping one of their languages!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Alex. Your courage and determination are truly admirable! You know you are doing the right thing. It is so sad to hear how widespread this incorrect advice to drop a language still is, although research has shown that there is no evidence to support it. The language we use with our children is such an important part of the relationship – how upsetting would it not be for your son if you changed the language you speak with him? All the best to you and your family – keep strong!

  6. Kara

    When a bilingual child is diagnosis with Autism (and perhaps other conditions with language delays as well–not sure) the common advice is to drop down to a single language. This seems logical .. the idea that more than one language would put undue stress on the child and further delay language.

    This is the advise that our family got, but it didn’t feel right to me, so I urged my husband (Japanese native) to wait. Come to find out that this advise is not based on research. Also came to learn that research specific to autism had recently been done by some reputable researchers in the ASD field, and with a good size sample …

    Hambly, C., & Fombonne, E. (2012). The impact of bilingual environments on language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal Of Autism And Developmental Disorders, 42(7), 1342-1352. doi:10.1007/s10803-011-1365-z

    Abstract The impact of bilingual exposure on language learning has not been systematically studied in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This study compared the social abilities and language levels of children (mean age = 56 months) with ASDs from bilingual (n = 45) and monolingual (n = 30) environments. Bilingually-exposed children were subgrouped based on simultaneous bilingual exposure from infancy (SIM, n = 24) versus sequential post-infancy bilingual exposure (SEQ, n = 21). Despite significantly different amounts of bilingual exposure across all groups (p =.001) and significantly stronger social interaction scores in the SIM group compared to the SEQ group on the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II Interpersonal subdomain (p = 0.025), there were no significant group differences in language level. Bilingually-exposed children with ASDs did not experience additional delays in language development.

    The authors went on to say that limiting learning and exposure to one language put undue hardship on the family.

    It was also exciting to see that the SIMs scored higher on the social interaction scores!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for this valuable information, Kara! I am so glad that the tide is slowly turning on the “drop a language” advice. Hopefully it will soon be a thing of the past, and parents get the appropriate support for whatever issue they are facing.

  7. Jessica @EatSleepBe

    Your experience and perspective is fascinating. Thank you, Alex!

  8. Jenny

    Great article. I myself was growth in bilingual environment. My parents are Japanese, so we speak only in Japanese at home. And as we leave in Brazil, I learnt Portuguese at school. I did not have any problems at school, in fact I went to the best University in Brazil, Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP), and graduated Engineer. My mother talked to me that she also received “advise” from our Elementary School teacher about speaking only in one language. Thanks GOD my mother did not listen. Today I am doing the same to my children. I talk to them in Japanese at home, and they learn Portuguese at school. Yes, he needed more time to start speaking when baby, but today, I did not see any speaking problems.

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for sharing your family’s story, Jenny! How great of your mother to be so strong and do what she believed in – and now you can pass on the language gift to your children, wonderful!

  9. Kara

    Alex, I understand your frustration. We were told to drop to one language too. Please see my post below! My son understood our languages (and spoke them) equally well when he did begin to speak some words (though delayed). Coincidence,..!? I don’t think so He only started to advance in English and leave the other language behind when we put him in an 30 hour a week outpatient hospital program for young children with intense therapy (including speech therapy) which has been very disheartening lately for my husband. Our son’s other language is continuing to grow though.



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