As the United States becomes increasingly diverse and multicultural, more and more children are being raised bilingual. Last week, we talked about how being bilingual impacts language development. For the majority of children, learning two languages early in life doesn’t negatively impact development, and according to some research, can actually have a range of benefits. However, for some children the process can be a little more complicated.
When a child learns a second language in early childhood, they often experience a temporary period in which their language goes “underground.” As the child interacts with an increasing range of people and new environments outside the home, they realize that other people may not understand their native language. However, if they’re still in the early stages of exposure to their second language, they may not be ready to “go public” with it yet. The result is that for a short time, the child may produce less language overall than before. Although this can be concerning for many parents, this temporary silent period is usually a normal part of a bilingual child’s development—most children will resume speaking after a short period of time with no lasting consequences. However, for some children, this stage lingers and can develop into communication anxiety. In these cases, the child is in danger of developing selective mutism—a condition in which even though a person is able to speak, they choose not to in certain social situations. In fact, a third of children with selective mutism come from bilingual or multilingual backgrounds. Unfortunately, the disorder is often more difficult to diagnose because it is often confused with a lack of proficiency in the second language. If you have any concerns about your child’s language development, you should contact a professional speech-language pathologist for a full evaluation.
Reassurance and encouragement can help a child transition through the silent period successfully. In addition, Priscilla Clarke (1992) suggests the following strategies to support a bilingual child during the silent period:
- Continue speaking to the child, even when they don’t respond.
- Continually include the child in small groups with other children. Structure activities to include plenty of child-to-child interaction.
- Include other children as the focus of conversation.
- Continue using of the child’s first language as needed.
- Accept non-verbal responses during interactions.
- Praise communication efforts by the child.
- Provide activities which reinforce language practice through role play.
Are you raising a bilingual child? Share your story in the comments section below!
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