Becoming Bilingual When children learn a second language, what’s the best way to support them and their families? Hint: It’s not about sacrificing the language they already know for the one they’re seeking to learn. Features
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Features  |   November 2014
Becoming Bilingual
Author Notes
  • Nidhi Mahendra, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at California State University East Bay. A bilingual speech-language pathologist, she has expertise in multicultural issues in service delivery, bilingualism, ethnogeriatrics and neurogenic language disorders. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 14, Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations, and serves as editor of SIG 14 Perspectives. nidhi.mahendra@csueastbay.edu
    Nidhi Mahendra, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at California State University East Bay. A bilingual speech-language pathologist, she has expertise in multicultural issues in service delivery, bilingualism, ethnogeriatrics and neurogenic language disorders. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 14, Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations, and serves as editor of SIG 14 Perspectives. nidhi.mahendra@csueastbay.edu×
  • Mahchid Namazi, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor and coordinator of the undergraduate program in speech-language-hearing sciences at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A trilingual SLP, Namazi specializes in developmental language disorders in bilingual/multilingual children and adolescents. She is the associate coordinator of ASHA SIG 14. mnamazi@kean.edu
    Mahchid Namazi, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor and coordinator of the undergraduate program in speech-language-hearing sciences at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A trilingual SLP, Namazi specializes in developmental language disorders in bilingual/multilingual children and adolescents. She is the associate coordinator of ASHA SIG 14. mnamazi@kean.edu×
Article Information
Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / Features
Features   |   November 2014
Becoming Bilingual
The ASHA Leader, November 2014, Vol. 19, 40-44. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.19112014.40
The ASHA Leader, November 2014, Vol. 19, 40-44. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.19112014.40

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Watch the University of Minnesota’s Kathy Kohnert describe bilingual language development and dispel myths about second-language acquisition.
Laila, an inquisitive 5-year-old with no known developmental delays, attends kindergarten at a public school in Fresno, California. She is the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Bahrain. When Laila was born, her paternal grandparents also moved from Bahrain to California to be more involved in raising their granddaughter. Laila did not attend a formal preschool and, prior to kindergarten, was primarily cared for by her monolingual Arabic-speaking grandparents.
Laila spent her preschool years in a loving, language-rich environment with familiar caregivers. She’s been exposed to more Arabic than English, though she has had experience with bilingual and English-only communication, mostly during ballet and swim lessons and interactions with her bilingual parents.
Given this background, how can Laila learn English most effectively? Does it make sense to harness her foundation in Arabic to help her learn English? Or, given the languages’ structural differences in phonology, syntax and vocabulary, is it best to focus exclusively on English and restrict her exposure to Arabic? What would Laila lose if she lost her Arabic skills? What approach would be best for Laila to ensure her success and confidence as a communicator?
We offer pointers that speech-language pathologists can use in cases like Laila’s to arrive at clear, convincing answers to such questions. What’s critical here is that SLPs realize the importance of preserving the heritage language of bilingual children on their caseloads.
Circumstantial or elective bilingualism?
Language is a uniquely human gift and a remarkable window into a culture. When a speaker learns a new language, he or she also learns a distinct view of the world. Spoken languages facilitate the development of shared meaning and a cultural common ground, and this link between language and culture is paramount in understanding the importance of a bilingual or multilingual speaker’s languages. What price do emerging or established bilinguals pay when they lose a heritage language? What does a speaker gain when choosing to acquire a second language?
These questions lead us to the distinction between circumstantial and elective bilingualism: needing to learn a second language to survive in educational, vocational and communicative contexts in a specific society versus choosing to learn another language, typically to support personal interest, education or employment goals.
Elective bilinguals experience additive bilingualism—they typically acquire a second language without losing their first. Research shows that circumstantial bilinguals, both children and adults, often experience subtractive bilingualism and first-language attrition (see sources) with an accompanying loss of the feelings of prestige and cultural belonging attached to this heritage language.
Defining the issue
More than half of the world’s population is bilingual, meaning that, globally, monolingual speakers are a minority. The 2010 U.S. census revealed that of the 291.5 million Americans age 5 years and older, approximately 60.6 million—or 21 percent—spoke a language other than English at home. And although English is the most widely used language in the world, Americans comprise a minority of the world’s English-speakers. In Europe, bilingualism is viewed as an asset and people have high standards regarding who could be considered a bilingual speaker. Einar Haugen, a pioneer in bilingual studies, has suggested that unlike in Europe, bilingualism is transitional in the United States, with linguistic assimilation as the end goal.
Demographic data show that English-language learners entering U.S. schools speak one of about 400 languages with varied fluency, exposure to English and rates of English acquisition. This linguistic diversity stands in clear contrast to the limited racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity among practicing SLPs. In 2013, only 5 percent of respondents to ASHA’s membership survey self-identified as bilingual, with 7.6 percent identifying a race other than white, and 4.6 percent indicating they were Hispanic or Latino.
Language loss
Both of us have experienced learning—and losing—second and third languages (see sidebars), and have observed our clients and our own children learning second languages. Our observations support Jim Cummins’ Common Underlying Proficiencies model (see sources), which postulates that the heritage language serves as a strong foundation for second-language acquisition. These personal experiences with language attrition and acquisition inspire our teaching and research.
When a speaker loses the ability to communicate in a heritage language, the consequences may include:
Reduced ability to learn about a culture associated with the heritage language. Experts agree that the languages we speak reflect and express our thoughts but also shape the very thoughts we express. Terry Winograd, in “Understanding Natural Language,” describes language as a process of communication between speakers that cannot be separated from the knowledge speakers have about the world. When we learn any language, therefore, we do so in the context of a culture. When bilingual individuals learn two languages, they often do so in the context of two distinct cultures.
For example, in Hindi, there are three levels of the pronoun “you”—the first is used for a young child or subordinate; the second typically for a peer, close friend or equal (in status); and the third is for someone older or of higher status and authority such a parent, teacher, physician or boss. A young child of bilingual and bicultural parents who loses or never acquires fluency in Hindi, therefore, misses out on this cultural nuance that is not reflected in English.
The loss of a heritage language may also cause a subsequent disconnect with the related culture. A child’s personal identity may not encompass this culture as fully as when the associated language is nurtured and retained. Retaining even some fluency and comprehension in a language sustains access to the related culture via creative arts and literature.
Lost opportunity to develop relationships with monolingual speakers of the heritage language. A shared spoken language is the social glue that helps us develop unique relationships with other speakers of social and familial groups. In losing bilingual abilities, we are left with limited opportunities to develop social bonds and familial relationships with those who speak only the heritage language—typically elders in an ethnic community, such as Laila’s grandparents. Laila is unlikely to grow up with the shared common ground or ability to connect with her grandparents if she loses her Arabic-speaking skills.
Eroding of behavioral or cognitive reserve—the brain’s ability to stave off decline later in life. Cognitive reserve is a mechanism of resilience against brain injury or disease, according to Yaakov Stern’s 2009 article in Neuropsychologia. Such reserve may buffer an individual from manifesting the full impact of a clinical condition like dementia. Experts believe that varied activities—such as physical exercise, creative arts, higher educational attainment and learning a second language—help build a person’s cognitive reserve. Recent research (see sources) reveals that there is a powerful connection between second-language learning and the potential to stave off cognitive decline in later life resulting from neurodegenerative disorders, and that bilingualism is an experience that positively influences the development of cognitive reserve.
How does bilingualism build up cognitive reserve? One mechanism may be that bilinguals develop superior executive control systems because they constantly select and switch between languages (see sources). As clinicians seeking to promote cognitive and communicative wellness, we cannot ignore this newer strand of evidence supporting the potentially neuroprotective role of bilingualism.
Theory into practice
Armed with this information, how can SLPs help bilingual children and their families? It’s important to acknowledge and understand that the attitudes of people and societies toward languages other than English greatly influence their use, maintenance and restoration. As SLPs, we can support bilingual children and their families by minimizing language attrition, supporting heritage languages and preserving linguistic diversity.
Backed by evidence, we can confidently:
  • Advocate strongly to preserve the heritage language.

  • Promote inclusion of cultural themes, stories, holidays and literature in curricula through collaboration with classroom teachers.

  • Teach about and demonstrate how to use the child’s heritage language to facilitate and strengthen second-language learning.

  • Encourage and model use of bilingual or dual-language story books in treatment sessions and provide resources to parents and classroom teachers.

  • Raise awareness in diverse communities about the cognitive and social benefits of bilingualism (through libraries, parenting websites, magazines).

  • Educate teachers about the benefits of bilingualism and strategies for incorporating the heritage language into the curriculum.

  • Educate professionals and parents about evidence that shows that even children with language impairment can acquire two languages and that bilingualism does not hinder their language development (see sources).

So, what about Laila? Evidence suggests that Laila certainly would learn English more quickly if she maintains her Arabic and uses her knowledge of Arabic to acquire English. What’s more, by continuing to speak Arabic she can strengthen her ties to her Arab ethnicity and culture.
The Authors’ Stories of Second-Language Learning
‘Using French to Learn English Was Very Successful.’

As a Canadian and a product of globally emulated French immersion education, I experienced the benefits of immersion education when I immigrated to Canada from Iran at age 9.

French immersion is the Canadian counterpart of dual-language programs in the United States—they both allow speakers of the majority language to learn a second language. For example, U.S. dual-language programs for English- and Spanish-speakers provide instruction in English and Spanish for equal parts of the day. Dual-language programs were developed in the U.S. in the late 1960s, inspired by the theoretical framework of the Canadian French immersion program.

I arrived in Canada not speaking or understanding any English. Given my strong literacy skills and content knowledge in Persian and French, using French to learn English was very successful. Researchers have demonstrated that the ability to read transfers across languages, even when the writing systems are different: from Chinese to English, from Vietnamese to English, from Japanese to English, and from Turkish to Dutch (see sources).

As an SLP and mother, I used my own experiences and my academic knowledge to teach my daughter to read Persian using her literacy skills in English. She began reading at a first-grade level in Persian in less than three months, a process that likely would have taken longer had I not used her stronger language—English in this case—to teach Persian.

As a researcher, I have been fortunate to observe one of the most successful bilingual programs for Spanish-speaking preschoolers in New Jersey. Preschoolers in this program—many from single-parent homes and living in poverty—start at 3 years old and speak only Spanish. They are immersed in a dual-language classroom with two teachers, a native English-speaker and a native Spanish-speaker. By the age of 5, most of these Spanish-speaking preschoolers have achieved fluency in English, despite little to no exposure to English at home.

—Mahchid Namazi

‘My Subsequent Moves Nearly Eroded My Arabic’

I was born and raised in Kuwait, an Arabic-speaking country. I grew up a simultaneous bilingual of Asian-Indian ethnicity, with family members speaking Hindi and English at home. I was exposed to Arabic as the dominant language spoken, and incidentally began to acquire Arabic vocabulary, greetings and songs. In elementary school, all students were expected to speak, read and write Arabic. By this time, my parents—who had emigrated from India—were fluent in Arabic, learned in university classes with employer support. When I began learning Arabic in grade school, I was fluent in English, and bilingual teachers (with native fluency in Arabic) used my knowledge of English to expedite my learning of Arabic using dual-language materials.

I quickly acquired basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS in Cummins’ model): I could have social conversations, order meals at a restaurant, talk on the phone and express many basic needs. As I continued to learn Arabic, I learned to read and write it as well, but speaking seemed stymied for some time at the BICS level, requiring more time and effort to develop further (as predicted by Cummins).

My subsequent moves from Kuwait to India, and from India to the United States, nearly eroded my Arabic, with significant attrition of my spoken ability and less attrition of my reading and writing ability. Several factors set the stage for this attrition. I had acquired spoken Arabic only a little beyond the BICS level; my subsequent moves to different countries diminished the contextual value and appreciation for my Arabic skills, given the absence of social or vocational situations in which knowing Arabic was advantageous; and, without conversational partners or members of my social network fluent in Arabic, the motivation to use and maintain it faded.

I decided to raise my sons as English-Hindi bilinguals based on an instinctive desire not to lose my heritage language or a home environment that promotes it. I have observed clearly that cognitive and social skills acquired in English transfer readily to Hindi and vice versa. Further, English is used routinely in Hindi classes as the conduit to facilitate rapid acquisition of spoken and written Hindi, clearly supporting the Common Underlying Proficiencies model in which the heritage language strongly facilitates second-language acquisition. These personal experiences with language attrition and facilitating second language acquisition have deeply inspired my teaching, research and clinical practice in this area.

—Nidhi Mahendra

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November 2014
Volume 19, Issue 11