Multilingualism: More than words

by Jenny Gibson

Can you be multilingual if you don’t talk at all? The question may sound paradoxical but it is one that I’ve been asked many times in my work as Speech and Language Therapist. Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous people who do not talk or who can understand and use very few words. This includes people who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury affecting speech and language systems in the brain, as well as those with intellectual disabilities that have affected the language development process from the earliest days of life. Some of these individuals come from backgrounds where multilingualism is the norm and their families are often concerned about choosing the language that can best support communication and the development of new skills.

Sometimes people think that the best strategy will be for everyone at home to start using the language that’s used in school, or by medical and support staff. I work in England so usually this means families are switching from their home languages to use English instead. However, there are good reasons for families to think twice before adopting a monolingual approach.

Speech-Language therapy for “non-verbal” individuals is likely to have greater emphasis on supporting good communication, than on developing linguistic skills such as learning new words. Non-verbal people develop their own unique ways of getting their message across, and their families are often incredibly creative in finding ways to support them. Gesture, singing, touch, photographs, facial expressions, vocalisations, creative use of objects and even dancing can all be used as means to connect.

Although research on this topic is limited (we’re working on it! [as part of MEITS Strand 6]) there is no strong evidence to suggest multilingualism is in any way detrimental to engaging in these kinds of meaningful communication or to the development of language skills. If someone is from a multilingual background then the power of shared language and cultural experience in the family can be important for emotional connection and the flow of communication, even in the most challenging circumstances. A broad conceptualisation of multilingualism therefore goes beyond the mere utterance of words and becomes for everyone regardless of verbal ability or disability. As one parent of a non-verbal child with autism and cerebral palsy said to me, ‘I sing to Joanna* in Polish because that’s the language of my heart.’

*name has been changed

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