Bilingualism and Speech & Language Disorders

by Özge Öztürk

Recent research on bilingualism has shown that learning two or more languages at once, far from being a disadvantage, is associated with multiple benefits, as long as the child has sufficient support to maintain all of his/her languages (Uljarević et al., 2016). The bilingual experience has been associated with higher educational achievement (Multilingual Britain, 2013), improved social use of language (Antoniou & Katsos, in press), and enhanced cognitive flexibility, symbolic representation, and other forms of executive control (Bialystok et al., 2009). These benefits are most likely due to the increased demand required for managing multiple languages on a day-to-day basis.

What is not yet well researched is bilingualism in children with speech and language disorders. In the UK, an estimated 5-12 % of all children are believed to have speech and language disorders (Law, 2000). Unfortunately, a common belief is that if learning one language is hard for the child, then two languages will be even more difficult to master. The family is then advised to keep to a single language in order to consolidate the child's resources and make things easier. This means families who have been using a minority language at home are asked to switch to the majority language so that the child can access the appropriate services (Kohnert, 2007). In essence, this is due to the fact that as it is often difficult – if not impossible – to find therapy materials in the child’s home language as well as a bilingual speech and language therapist that can provide assessment and therapy across both languages.

There are several problems with this attitude. First, there is no scientific evidence supporting the claim that switching to monolingualism helps a child overcome a speech and language disorder. Second, there is no scientific evidence showing that bilinguals are more prone to having speech and language disorders than monolinguals. Third, bilinguals with speech and language disorders are not at a greater disadvantage than their monolingual peers, all else being equal. Children with speech and language disorders can learn two languages, as can children with Down Syndrome (Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2005), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Bialystok et al., 2016), Autism (Reetzke et al., 2015), and Hearing Impairment (Waltzman et al., 2003). Monolingual children with speech and language disorders learn language, although at a slower pace and perhaps not to the same level as their unaffected peers. Similarly, bilingual children with speech and language disorders learn two languages relatively slower and perhaps not to the same level as their typically developing bilingual peers, but they match their monolingual peers with a speech and language disorder, if given similar opportunities. In other words, language development can be typical or atypical irrespective of the number of languages the child is exposed to (Cruz-Ferreira, 2011; Kohnert, 2007).

Current research confirms that assessment and intervention in speech and language therapy for bilingual children should target each of the child’s languages. This not only ensures a valid assessment of the child’s true linguistic skills but it also increases both the chances and the speed of recovery. It has long been agreed that speech and language therapy should use a holistic approach to meeting the communication needs of children with speech and language disorders rather than the traditional approach of providing interventions within isolated treatment contexts (Fey & Stalker, 1986).

Therefore, intervention success depends on the child’s ability to generalize communicative attainments in therapy across various communication settings and partners, especially within the family and community. Being monolingual in a bilingual family or community would inevitably limit a child’s communication opportunities, negate previous language experiences, deny full participation in family and community life, and effectively turn a disability into a handicap (Kohnert & Derr, 2004). On the other hand, developing both languages would allow the child to take full advantage of previous experiences with language and to increase the opportunities to use language for meaningful interactions within the family and community.

Reducing the number of languages that a bilingual child with a speech and language disorder is exposed to does not cure the language impairment. It only creates a monolingual child with a speech and language disorder.

As part of Strand 6 of the MEITS Project we study bilingual and monolingual children on the autism spectrum. We ask whether bilingual children on the autism spectrum benefit from the same social, linguistic, and cognitive advantages as their typically developing bilingual peers. With the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder recently estimated at 1 in 88 individuals (Brugha et al., 2012) an evidence-based understanding of how bilingualism interacts with this disorder is crucial in order to inform best practice in the family and the educational environment, and to develop appropriate interventions for bilingual children.

Additional material:

Prof. Kathy Kohnert talking about bilingual language development



Antoniou, K., & Katsos, N. (in press). The effect of childhood multilingualism and bilectalism on implicature understanding. Applied Psycholinguistics.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Green, D.W., & Gollan, T.H. (2009). Bilingual minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10, 89-129.

Bialystok, E., Hawrylewicz, K., Wiseheart, M., & Toplak, M. (2016). Interaction of bilingualism and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder in young adults. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, pp. 1–14. doi: 10.1017/S1366728915000887.

Bird, E. K. R., 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(3), 187-199.

Brugha, T. et al (2012). The NHS Information Centre, Community and Mental Health Team, Estimating the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions in adults: extending the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Leeds: NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care. Retrieved from: [url=][/url]

Castro, D. C., García, E. E., & Markos, A. M. (2013). Dual language learners: Research informing policy. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Center for Early Care and Education—Dual Language Learners.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (2011, August 02). Recommending Monolingualism to Multilinguals – Why, and Why Not [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Fey, M. E., & Stalker, C. H. (1986). A hypothesis-testing approach to treatment of a child with an idiosyncratic (morpho) phonological system. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 51(4), 324-336.

Kohnert, K., Derr, A., & Goldstein, B. (2004). Language intervention with bilingual children. Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers, 311-338.

Kohnert, K. (2007). Evidence-based practice and treatment of speech sound disorders in bilingual children. Perspectives on Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations, 14(2), 17-20.

Law, J., Boyle, J., Harris, F., Harkness, A. & Nye, C. (2000). Prevalence and natural history of primary speech and language delay: Findings from a systematic review of the literature. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 35 (2), 165-88.

Taylor, F. (2013). Multilingual Britain. Retrieved from

Reetzke, R., Zou, X., Sheng, L., & Katsos, N. (2015). Communicative development in bilingually exposed Chinese children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58(3), 813-825.

Uljarević, M., Katsos, N., Hudry, K., & Gibson, J.L. (2016). Multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders – an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12596.

Waltzman, S. B., Robbins, A. M., Green, J. E., & Cohen, N. L. (2003). Second oral language capabilities in children with cochlear implants. Otology & neurotology, 24(5), 757-763.

Rosario Then de Lammerskötter

Great Article!


Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Note: comments are moderated before publication. The views expressed in the comments are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MEITS Project or its associated partners.

Related Strand

Related Blog Post

Related Articles

Find By Author


Project Strand:

Search the Blog

Our Partners