Elizabeth D. Peña, Ph.D.
University of California, Irvine
Lisa M. Bedore, Ph.D.
How Can We Identify Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in Bilingual Children?
Bilingual children with developmental language disorder (DLD) have a hard time learning both of their languages. As with monolinguals, children with DLD have most trouble with grammar. Also, vocabulary learning, understanding directions and concepts, and storytelling are hard. The difficulties that bilinguals with DLD have in language learning are not because of their bilingualism.
The kinds of errors bilingual children with DLD make depend on the languages they know. The patterns of errors may be different in each language. For example, in English, children may omit word endings such as -ed, or –s in words like played or plays. In Spanish, children may make errors in how they use articles (el, la) such as saying “la vaso” instead of “el vaso”. In Mandarin, children leave out markers that indicate completion of an event. Bilinguals make errors in both their languages. If they make errors in only one language, this is usually a sign of a language difference—not DLD.
It can be hard to tell if a bilingual child has DLD, especially in their second language. In addition to errors that are common in DLD, bilingual children may make errors influenced by their other language. Bilingual children with no language problems and bilinguals with DLD make many of the same errors. A big difference is that bilinguals with DLD make these errors much more often than bilinguals without language problems. For example, in English, a typical bilingual Spanish-English child may say, “He no have the ball” sometimes—which is how this would be said in Spanish. At other times that same child may use the correct form, “He does not…” This inconsistent use of the correct and incorrect form shows that the child is in the process of learning the form. Bilinguals with DLD make these errors across both their languages more often.
Can Children with DLD be Bilingual?
Families who use two (or more) languages in the household often wonder whether they should use only one language. They wonder if they should use only the school or community language. They worry that it is harder for a child with DLD to learn two languages than just one.
Children with DLD can learn more than one language. They will not struggle more than children with DLD who speak only one language. It is important to speak in both languages so your child can learn words and rules of both languages. Only talking in one language gives the child less opportunity to learn both languages. By using only one language, children could also lose important family connections.
The reason people think it is hard for children with DLD to learn two languages is that they will spend less time learning each language than children who learn one language. But, it is important to remember that it is good for children to hear and communicate in whatever language they hear. They learn the rules of the language by hearing and using it. Using two languages gives them more opportunities to use their language with family members who may not know both. These opportunities strengthen family relationships and provide language practice for children with DLD.
Research shows that people who know more than one language show cognitive benefits because they learn to juggle the two languages. Sometimes this leads to better attention skills and helps them learn. We are not sure if bilingual children with DLD show these same benefits. But, some research shows that bilingualism helps children with DLD. And, bilingualism does not hurt children by causing them to learn less. Children and families need to consistently use and practice with children with DLD to keep learning two (or more languages). Knowing two languages opens opportunities for children in the future.
Bilingual Myths and Facts
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- Peña, E. D., Bedore, L. M., & Kester, E. S. (2016). Assessment of language impairment in bilingual children using semantic tasks: Two languages classify better than one. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 51, 192-202.
- Peña, E. D., Gillam, R. B., Bedore, L. M., & Bohman, T. M. (2011). Risk for poor performance on a language screening measure for bilingual preschoolers and kindergarteners. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20(4), 302-314. doi:10.1044/1058-0360