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Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs

An interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird.

Interview conducted by François Grosjean

One of the longest-lasting myths concerning bilingualism is that children with developmental disabilities should not become bilingual, or if they already are using a minority language in the home, should stop using it. Thanks to new research in the field, this view is slowly being replaced by one that states that these children can indeed become bilingual, or remain bilingual. A 2016 special issue of the Journal of Communication Disorders presents research that examines bilingual access and participation for children with developmental disabilities, conducted by an international team of researchers. The principal investigator was Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird of Dalhousie University in Canada. She kindly agreed to answer some of our questions and we wish to thank her wholeheartedly.

In your review of the field with Fred Genesee and Ludo Verhoeven, you concentrate on three groups of children with developmental disabilities. Which are they?

The three groups we focused upon were children with Specific (or Primary) Language Impairment (SLI), Down syndrome (DS), or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), because these are the ones who have been studied to any real degree with the emphasis having been put on bilingual children with SLI. Almost no research exists on bilingualism in other populations of children with developmental disabilities such as children with cerebral palsy or intellectual disabilities of other etiologies.

Why has there been such opposition to bilingualism for children with developmental disabilities over the years?

A prevalent fear, expressed by families and professionals alike, is that learning one language is already difficult for these children, therefore learning two or more languages would be just too difficult. 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 research findings.

Since we know many children with developmental disabilities need or want to be bilingual, and that many are indeed bilingual, the real issue is not whether they should become bilingual, but how to best support them in their life with two or more languages.

Are simultaneous bilinguals with developmental disabilities any different from similarly affected monolingual peers?

All the available evidence says no, there are no differences in the language skills of children with developmental disabilities and their similarly affected monolingual peers, as long as bilinguals are compared to monolinguals in an appropriate way. By appropriate I mean that if a simultaneous bilingual child with a developmental disability has relatively equal abilities in both languages, then research shows their ability in each language does not differ from that of monolingual similarly affected peers.

However, many simultaneous bilingual children do not have equal abilities in both their languages because they hear and use one language more often than the other. In that case, their stronger language should be the language that is compared to that of monolingual children. When that happens, they are no different from their similarly affected peers

How do sequential bilinguals with disorders fare?

They fare somewhat differently. As you know, these children have one language they are exposed to from birth and a second language they begin to learn somewhat later. Often, their first exposure to a second language occurs when they enter school and they are taught in this second (majority) language. Research shows that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) will often take a number of years to “catch up” to monolinguals who are similarly affected in their second language skills. Research on typically developing children has reported similar lags in second language development. This is not surprising—learning a second language takes time.

The story for children with Down Syndrome (DS) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not clear, but currently the evidence shows no detrimental effects of sequential bilingualism if you take into account both languages of the bilingual child when making comparisons.

Why is it so crucial not to abandon a home language in favor of the majority language?

The impact of abandoning a home language has been studied by interviewing parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Many families in these studies were advised to speak only the majority language to their children even though the parent was not fluent in it. Parents often talked about feeling less comfortable and less natural interacting with their child, and some reported that they actually avoided talking to him or her because of their discomfort. This has a detrimental effect on the child’s language development and is particularly problematic for children who have difficulty with communication, such as those with ASD.

Even if parents reported feeling comfortable speaking the majority language to their child with ASD, they expressed feelings of sadness and guilt at not passing their language (and culture) on to their children. When the majority language was the only language of input to a child with ASD in the home, other family members continued to use the home language(s), which effectively isolated the child with ASD from various family conversations.

How important is everyday exposure to both languages, in particular the weaker one, in children with developmental disabilities?

By definition, children with developmental disabilities have difficulty learning, and this includes learning language. To become and stay bilingual, children with developmental disabilities, just like typically developing children, need to be exposed to and use both their languages on a frequent and on-going basis. It has been shown that frequent input in a language is highly and positively related to proficiency in that language. This is particularly true for the weaker language.

Quantity is not all that is needed, however, as we saw in the interviews of parents with ASD; quality is also important. Children with developmental disabilities, because of their language-learning difficulties, need to experience both their languages in functional interactive contexts designed to facilitate their language learning.

Do children with developmental disabilities have equal access to bilingual programs (immersion, dual language) and, if not, what should be done?

No, they do not have equal access to bilingual programs and to services as shown in our survey in six sites and four countries. Our respondents reported that both sequential and simultaneous bilinguals with disabilities were taught only in the majority language and were assessed and treated only in that language more often than they should be. In general, the more severe the disability, the less likely children with developmental disabilities have access to bilingual supports and services.

Our team also interviewed practitioners and administrators to identify barriers that prevent children with developmental disabilities from accessing and/or participating fully in bilingual services and supports. We found both systemic barriers (e.g. limits in funding, service availability varying by geographic location, etc.) and barriers specific to children with developmental disabilities such as a tendency to prioritize special education services over bilingual services, a lack of integration of special education and bilingual services, and so on.

What are some of the suggestions that come out of your research project?

We feel that a number of changes should be made: All 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, and so on.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that our societies will value and support people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. After all, we know a lot about how we can help children become bilingual and remain bilingual and we also know a lot about how to appropriately assess and treat bilingual children with developmental disabilities. I hope that in the future we will continue to study these issues and make bilingual programs accessible to, and supportive of, the needs of children of all ability levels.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, click here.

François Grosjean's website


Bedore, L., Kay-Raining Bird, E., and Genesee, F. (eds.). The road to bilingualism: Access, participation and supports for children with developmental disabilities across contexts. Journal of Communication Disorders, 63, 1-92.

Kay-Raining Bird, E., Genesee, F., and Verhoeven, L. (2016). Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: A narrative review. Journal of Communicative Disorders, 63, 1-14.

de Valenzuela, J., Kay-Raining Bird, E., Parkington, K., Mirenda, P., Cain, K., MacLeod, A. A., and Segers, E. (2016). Access to opportunities for bilingualism for individuals with developmental disabilities: Key informant interviews. Journal of Communication Disorders, 63, 32 - 46.

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