Can SEN children become bilingual?

One of the biggest myths when it comes to bilingualism is that it causes language delay in children. I understand that if a child is a “late speaker” or has some speech issues, teachers and parents often think that the reason for this is because the child is overwhelmed by all the languages. The first thought is, of course to drop a language… Acquiring and learning a language is not an easy task, but no matter how old the child is, the languages are usually not the reason for the problems a child has to be in the norm.


Nowadays we know that this norm encompasses a broad range of possibilities: a bilingual can start talking (articulating meaningful and recognizable sound chains) at 10 months (or earlier) or 36 months… If there are no other factors influencing a childs’ language delay, this is perfectly normal. Every child is different and processes things around him/her in his or her very personal way: even language.

What about children who are on the SEN spectrum?

Prof. Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird of Dalhousie University in Canada is an expert in this field and she conducted a research on this matter, focussing on “children with Specific (or Primary) Language Impairment (SLI), Down syndrome (DS), or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”:


Exposing a child with developmental disabilities to two languages, the argument goes, might result in no language being learned well. This is a myth and it has been debunked through studies of typically developing children and children from our three groups. Children with developmental disabilities, regardless of diagnosis, can and do become bilingual but, unfortunately, many professionals and families are not aware of these resear
ch findings. (Interview of Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird by Prof. François Grosjean, Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Educational Needs)

Please read the full interview here and an article about children with hearing loss and bilingualism here.

The key take aways from this research are:

  • those involved with children with developmental disabilities need to know that these children can and do become bilingual
  • their families should be encouraged to enroll them in bilingual programs and services available to other children
  • special education and bilingual education programs and services should be integrated
  • staff who work with them should be provided with training and supports etc.

Read also: François Grosjean’s blog Life as a Bilingual

For children who have a developmental language disorder (DLD), we should always “carefully consider, during the assessment procedure, the role of environmental (e.g., age of first exposure to the languages, degree of exposure, etc.) and cognitive (e.g., phonological short-term memory) factors and their potential repercussions on language development and processing. Finally, they support the usefulness of multilevel procedures of narrative analysis that significantly contribute to draw a comprehensive linguistic profile that will be pivotal to rehabilitation ()”

(please read the full study “Linguistic Skills in Bilingual Children With Developmental Language Disorders: A Pilot Study” (2019) by Andrea MariniPaola SperindèIsabella RutaChristian Savegnago, and Francesco Avanzini, here)

An international team led by UNIGE (Geneva) demonstrates “that the characteristics of bilingualism allow autistic children to compensate for certain fundamental deficits”. Like Stéphanie Durrleman concludes, “as this neurodevelopmental disorder often affects language acquisition, bilingual families tend to give up the use of one of the two languages, so as not to exacerbate the learning process. However, it is now clear that far from putting autistic children in difficulty bilingualism can, on the contrary, help these children to overcome several aspects of their disorder, serving as a kind of natural therapy”. (Please read the full article here)

  • As for the transfer of language skills from L1 to L2, this study showed that “children’s formal linguistic skills in L1 and L2 tend to be related and that their level of L1 proficiency may help to develop linguistic skills in L2.” (Linguistic transfer in bilingual children with specific language impairment, by Verhoeven LSteenge Jvan Balkom H, 2012 Mar-Apr, 47(2):176-83) 
  • As for the significance of multilingualism for children with diverse needs and benefits in inclusive education have a look at this qualitative study by Dr. Neena Dush.

    Find some more resources on the Growing Up Bilingual site.

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