Selective Mutism and the Bilingual Child

14-6Many children go through a period of shyness, where they’re reluctant to speak to strangers or contribute in class. However, for some children, this reluctance to talk goes beyond typical shyness and becomes a communication disorder: selective mutism.

Selective mutism means that a child does not have difficulty with speech or language and is fully able to communicate verbally, but refuses to speak in certain settings or situations. Selective mutism is typically tied with social anxiety and reflects a fear of speaking.

Although selective mutism may be hard to tease apart from normal shyness, the issue becomes even more complicated when a child is bilingual. Although learning a second language typically comes more easily to young children than adults, the process is still difficult and complicated, requiring a range of social and cognitive skills. While a child is learning a second language, they typically undergo a short non-verbal period, in which their linguistic development “goes underground”. This period often occurs when a child realizes that others don’t understand their native language, but their skills in their second language are not yet sufficient for full communication. The child will often spend a month or more where they primarily listen to others, eventually using single words and short phrases, before fully “going public” with their second language.

For some children, this stage continues after they have become proficient in their second language and is accompanied by intense communication anxiety. In these cases, the child is in danger of developing full-blown selective mutism; in fact, a third of children with selective mutism come from bilingual or multilingual backgrounds. However, the disorder is often more difficult to diagnose because it is confused with a lack of proficiency in the second language.

If a child does present with selective mutism, speech-language therapy can help relieve communication anxiety and restore normal speech and language patterns. Therapy typically consists of a variety of exercises and activities tailored to reorganize the child’s perception of verbal communication and gradually increase verbal output and generalize to settings which induce anxiety.

Are you a parent or educator who knows a child with selective mutism? Share your story in the comments section below!

For information on our New York based Speech-Language Pathology services, please call Speech Associates of New York today at (212) 308-7725 or visit our website at and find out how our team of professionally trained and certified speech-language pathologists can help!

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