Can my special needs child be bilingual?

Can my special needs child be bilingual?

For many parents, the dream of raising a bilingual child ends abruptly with a diagnosis of special needs. How can a child with learning difficulties learn two languages at the same time? Many think this will simply confuse the child and cause even more harm to his or her development.

What science has to say

Fortunately, there is no scientific evidence to back up those fears. Instead, a study done by researchers from Dalhousie University, Université de Montreal and McGill University has shown that bilingual children with Down Syndrome were not affected in their learning of English. Other studies have shown that there are no adverse effects to teaching two languages to autistic children.

Currently, the general consensus among specialists in the field of speech language pathology is that children with language learning difficulties or special needs should maintain their mother tongue, even if it is not the community language or the language at school. A strong foundational knowledge of the mother tongue helps children to learn a second language and it is important in maintaining the child’s ties to his or her family.

Tips for parents

  • Ignore the opinions of those who think teaching two languages will confuse your child. Even doctors and teachers may have the wrong information on this issue. Become the expert yourself and show them research that demonstrates the benefits of bilingualism for children with special needs.
  • Create a language-rich environment at home that includes both languages.
  • Make sure your child is frequently exposed to both languages.
  • Seek the help of professionals such as speech language pathologists.

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Silvia is a Brazilian journalist, teacher, and mom. She grew up in Canada as a bilingual child, speaking only Portuguese at home and English everywhere else. Throughout her adult life, she has lived, studied and worked in both Brazil and Canada. Silvia thinks that bilingualism has opened so many doors for her and she wants the same for her children.