Let’s talk about: Multilingual children and Speech Therapy – an interview with Millie Slavidou

Speech therapy and multilingual children is a topic that needs more attention and research, and speech therapists, teachers and health practitioners need to be more informed about it.

When I shared articles and best practices about this in facebook groups, I had very interesting feedback and discussions on- and offline, and in personal chats.

It is specifically one with Millie Slavidou, a British mother of three, currently living in Cyprus, that caught my attention as she experienced most of the situations parents are confronted with when getting the diagnosis or the information that their child needs special support. – She was kind enough to share her story with me and to answer some questions.

About the topic

Many families get the advice that their children need speech therapy or other kind of special support. Some get this advice at a very early stage, some a bit later. Fact is, that this advice or diagnosis can have a great impact on families who live in their own country, but it can mean an even bigger challenge to those who live abroad. Navigating an unfamiliar system when facing any kind of hardship can be daunting. We’re far away from our families and considering that finding suitable support is already difficult for locals, it is even more arduous.

Millie and I are linguists and know about language acquisition and learning, and about bilingualism. We know what is possible, what the best practices and strategies are, what is realistic and what not, and we know what to search for in order to find even more answers. But what about those who are not experts, don’t know how to react if someone tells you to do something you feel is not right?

I asked Millie to share her experience in a short interview because what happened to her is what happens to many families who speak multiple languages around the world and we hope that her story can help others who are in a similar situation.

Interview with Millie Slavidou

Millie, can you please share about your background and tell us your story?

Yes, thank you, it’s a great pleasure. About myself and my background: I have lived in Cyprus now for about three years, prior to this I was in Greece for 16 years. I speak Greek fluently: I translate Greek and Italian, as I lived in Italy prior to coming to Greece. I studied languages and linguistics at University in Britain.

Languages, bilingualism, multilingualism: these are a major part of my life.

With my children I speak exclusively in English, although I do sometimes throw in a phrase in Italian, but they only speak back in English. I don’t speak to them in Greek, although they know that I am fluent and they hear me speak it in social settings. We try to be strict.

As for my story: I have three children. The youngest of my children has special needs that are severe enough that he has been going to speech therapy for many years now, and he has cognitive delays.

When we went initially to a clinic to get a referral for a speech therapist, as this is how the system works in Greece where we lived at that time, the first time we tried, we were told that we can’t get the referral, they were actually very rude to me personally, and also to my husband who is a Greek national.

We were told “you can’t have speech therapy because you are bilingual and this is what is causing the problem”. They actually accused me of sabotaging my child by insisting on being bilingual. – I was very shocked to say the least.

I pointed out that my other two children are doing very well and had a very good age-appropriate vocabulary at that time in both their languages. But they said “that is different. This child has special needs and children with special needs cannot be bilingual. You’re causing the problem“.

I had to take the matter to the director of the clinic. I was very angry, as you can imagine. I was determined to report this to the police and to report the clinic for racism. I was told that “there must have been a misunderstanding”, and that everything would be all right… They signed all of the papers eventually so that I could get the speech therapy for my son, and as aIl I wanted to get was speech therapy, I dropped the matter.

I knew that it would continue, that there would be others saying the same thing to other parents. In fact, I have heard from other parents that they got the same advice to drop a language and, trusting the healthcare professionals, some of them actually did.

Now their children only speak or understand one of their family languages, and one parent is left communicating with their children in a foreign language. (Millie)

So, we went to a speech therapist. There is a certain number of approved speech therapists, an official list to choose from.

The first we went to, was very negative. We were, again, advised to “stop bilingualism” and she didn’t want me to be in the room with my child when he was having his speech therapy sessions. She said that I’m a distracting influence because I spoke another language to him.

You can imagine that I decided to change speech therapist. The second one wasn’t exactly positive towards bilingualism but wasn’t negative either: she tried to ignore it as much as she could.

I made some more inquiries because I thought that maybe there is somebody else that could be more suitable for us, but as I didn’t find anybody I stopped and stayed with this one. ­ At least, neutral is better than negative.

When my son started the education system, first at kindergarten, the first thing the teacher said was “you’ve got to stop speaking English with your child”.

My other two children had already been to the same kindergarten. It was a large kindergarten and had more than one teacher for each year group. But they had a different teacher. She was very positive and happy that I was speaking English to them and teachers were helping them at school; overall it was a very positive experience with my other two children.

But this other teacher told us to stop speaking English with our son. She said that it is a disadvantage, that we’re holding him back. She said that he won’t progress because at the time his vocabulary was very poor and Greek should be his main and community language.

When he pointed out that my son is a child with special needs, and as by the time his active vocabulary was extremely limited – he had maybe 5 words in either language – I made my point clear that this had nothing to do with bilingualism, it had to do with his cognitive delay. They were adamant: in their opinion I was causing the problem.

I couldn’t bear it… My son had to attend kindergarten, I couldn’t just pull him out and there wasn’t anywhere else I could send him. The options were very limited, especially when you have a child with special needs. – I actually have no experience at nursery school with my son, simply because they didn’t accept him at nursery school…

 

How did you solve the problem?

To be frank, I am not sure if I did solve the kindergarten problem! I persevered in sending my son to the school, as I didn’t have a lot of choice. The teacher made my life difficult, but after a while she must have got tired of it. She continued to be rude, with lots of passive-aggressive sighs whenever she heard me speaking in English, but she stopped mentioning it to me. I don’t think she ever helped him much in the class, but I think he may have got something from the social interaction with the other children.

Millie, this is a lot you had to go through. It seems to me you were like a Jeanne D’Arc, fighting for the rights of her son. It sounds like a constant battle…

 

I do agree. You do feel that it’s just you standing up against the world, and you have to be quite strong to deal with this. Some people can’t. And I resent being patronized by doctors because they assume that you don’t know anything. They speak to you as if you were completely ignorant and I know what can be done, I know what I’m talking about. You really feel you’re fighting an uphill battle…

This kind of problems can take a huge toll on us especially when we live in another country, with no close family or friends supporting us. When you take care of a child with special needs, you totally focus on that child and your family. Millie, did you get support from your family or from someone else?

 

My British relations, i.e. my parents and siblings all live in the UK so they were very far away. My husbands relations were about 100 km away from the town where we lived in Greece. They couldn’t of course on a daily basis because they didn’t live close enough, but we would meet at weekends and sometimes they would take the children to give us a bit of a break. As for support about bilingualism: they didn’t know about bilingualism and they couldn’t really support us. This was a new concept for them. When my first son was born, I remember my father-in-law said to me “are you sure you should speak to him in English?”, and I said “yes, don’t worry” and he just left it like that, but I could see that it was troubling him a little bit. I accepted that he wasn’t aware about what it means but he wasn’t going to make it an issue.

 

Your son is 9 and a half years old today, and you told me in our chat that the situation in Cyprus now is much better?

 

I don’t know how it would have been if he had been born here and grown up here, maybe we would still have had the same problems.

When we arrived here, he was already in primary school and they have a very good system here for special needs children at primary school. He went into a special unit within the mainstream school, where there’s a lot of support.

One of the teachers is, I think, either bilingual or she has a bilingual family member, she knows a bit more about bilingualism and is very supportive.

The speech therapist here was very helpful to find the right person. We’ve been very lucky here, it has been much better.

Some families decide to move to another country in order to get the support for one of their children. When the situation becomes very difficult for one child, it can cause an international move…

Yes, it can be. But it is not always possible. Not everybody has the resources and the means to move internationally. We thought about this a lot before we came here, and one of the reasons why we came to Cyprus was that they speak Greek here too, and my husband was very concerned about putting our son into a new linguistic environment.

He has the Greek and he has the English already from home. If we had to move to Germany, just to make an example, he would have to suddenly learn German and I’m not sure it is a good idea. Not for the additional language, but  how would it impact his overall development? Here in Cyprus, the underlying culture is Greek, and more familiar to him. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

I agree that moving to another country and adding another language would have meant for you all a great change, which is already a considerable step for many of us, but it can have an immense impact a child with special needs. (Ute)

 

Millie, what tips would you give to parents who are in a similar situation?

First of all, I would say, you have to trust your own instincts. Because your instinct says that no, you’re not harming your child. How can a language harm? You have to trust that initial thought.

Second: be prepared. You have to research the bilingualism aspect, you have to research your child’s condition, whatever the condition is, because you will come up against a big wall, constantly, with people being negative about it and you need to know and to be able to say that this is the research.

Speech therapists, teachers and doctors are simply humans. They can’t know everything. We’re only discovering now in the past few years how the human brain works. There is a lot of new research on bilingualism, multilingualism and the function of the brain. But not everyone is aware of all this research.

Therefore you have to be prepared to do your research and look into it. Educators especially, have no training on bilingualism, in my experience. They know how to teach, they know about teaching methods, and all the pedagogical aspects of it, but they don’t know about bilingualism as it is not part of the programme.

And if they don’t have anything to draw on, they give you this kind of advice and ask you to stop with the language.

Third: you have to stand up. It can be difficult but ignore the inner voice that keeps you back and go for it. Keep going.

You could even be part of some future research. Future generations of children could benefit from your experience.

There are more children born with the same condition or similar to your child, and their parents will also need some support and they’ll need help, maybe you can be part of that help in some way.

Fourth: There are online communities you can join for parents of children with all kinds of conditions (see the links here below). Children with special needs are very very common, and one doesn’t need to feel like hiding it. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Some of these online groups are very knowledgeable, they refer you to a paper, a piece of research, you can really find a lot of help from them!

Which website or online group did you find specifically helpful?

I knew where to look for scientific research and I looked up recent research at the Centre of Bilingualism from Bangor University.

For very specific aspects and speech therapy, the website TalkNua, a site run by a speech therapist from Ireland, was very helpful for me.

Specialneedsjungle is also a great resource for all kinds of special needs, the fb group autisminclusivity for families with an autistic member and Mumsnet, where you can find all kind of information and they have a special needs discussion board (see links here below).

It is important to join these groups not only to gather some information but also because you need to feel that you’re not the only one who is dealing with this.

Thank you very much, Millie, for taking the time and for sharing your story and experience on this topic!

What we wish for is for teachers, educators, health practitioners to be more aware of the benefits of multilingualism and that this should be part of the program at the Universities, and wherever they study to become teachers, not only in primary schools, but also from nursery school, before you start formal education.

– Do you have a child with special needs or that needs speech therapy? Then please share your story in the comments here below!

– We would also be very thankful if you could let us know, which site, what resources helped you the most – in any language!

Some resources:

Centre of Bilingualism (Bangor University)

Talk Nua a website by an Irish Speech Therapist

A resource for all kinds of special needs: https://specialneedsjungle.com

– and their fb group

fb group for families with an autistic member:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/autisminclusivity/

Mumsnet has a special needs discussion board and information for parents

 

 

About Millie Slavidou

Millie Slavidou is a British writer who has worked in translation and teaching in Greece and Cyprus. She regularly writes for Jump Mag, an online publication aimed at pre-teens, as well as writing articles primarily on etymology on her own blog, Glossologics. She is the author of the Lucy Evans Instaexplorer series for pre-teens, and Sparky, a first chapter book for younger readers. She also administrates a Facebook group for bilingual families using Greek, where she is frequently known to give advice and support. Millie currently lives in Cyprus with her family, including one bilingual child with significant special needs.

Related posts:

The advantage of being bilingual for children with ASD

Can SEN children become bilingual?

Can children with language impairments learn two languages?

If you are looking for Speech Therapists:

NaLogo (Milan, Italy: German, English, Italian)

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