Outreach Articles

Bilingual and Multilingual Development Research from Other Labs

Communication Habits of Parents with Bilingual Children who have Communicative Disorders

Keywords: Communication, Language development, Native language, Language comfort, Language exposure, Language complexity, Autism Spectrum Disorder

When it comes to bilingualism and children with disabilities, it is not uncommon for parents to think, or even be told by health professionals, that exposure to multiple languages might negatively affect the child’s chances of learning a language. However, this is not the case, and the number of languages that a child (with or without a disability) is exposed to does not make language learning any more or less difficult. As a result of the previous thought, some parents may decide to only use one language with their child. Typically this choice is based on which language will help them thrive socially or in school. For example, if the language that the child will use in school is English, then the parents may choose to only speak to their child in English. In some cases the parents have a strong understanding and ability to use this language and the change is easy for them to do, but in other cases English is not the parent’s strongest (or first) language and they switch to using a language that is less comfortable for them.

In the recent article Interaction Behaviors of Bilingual Parents with their Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Kristelle Hudry and colleagues discussed the use of a “non-comfortable” language by parents and how it might affect the type of exposure their child gets to language. Hudry and colleagues thought that the use of a non-native language by parents (compared to a native-language) might affect how the parent communicates with the child, and in turn what type of language the child is exposed to. Their belief was that bilingual, and monolingual, parents who use their native language when talking to their child would expose them to more complex language. They also believed that these parents would use more techniques to help their child develop language. In comparison, they thought that bilingual parents who used their non-native language when speaking to their child with Autism Spectrum Disorder would use less complex sentences and less language building strategies, negatively influencing their child’s language development. After observing bilingual parents interacting with their children in both their native and non-native language (taking into account how comfortable they were with their non-native language), and monolingual parent-child interactions, Hudry was not able to support her original thoughts. What she found was that the bilingual parents communicated very similarly, in terms of complexity of sentences and language strategies used, when speaking to their children in both their native and non-native languages.

This study shows us that not only does the number of languages that the child is exposed to not affect their ability to learn language, but the language that you choose to use with your child doesn’t change how you communicate. Whether the parent is using their native language or a language that they are less comfortable with, there is no change in the richness of the language the child is exposed to and learns from. This is strong support for the fact that children with or without disabilities are more than capable of learning multiple languages, and we should not think otherwise.


Hudry, K., Rumney, L., Pitt, N., Barbaro, J., & Vivanti, G. (2017). Interaction behaviors of bilingual parents with their young children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2017.1286592

Myths of Bilingualism and Developmental Language Disorders

Keywords: Bilinguals, Communication, Language development, Language disorders, Learning, Myths

Children with developmental language disorders (language learning difficulties) have language skills that are delayed and below that of same-aged peers, but they often have no other developmental deficits. It is common for bilingual parents of such children to ask if they should teach their child both languages. Unfortunately, in the past, these parents may have been advised to use only one of their languages, typically that used in the school system, with their child. This advice stemmed from myths surrounding bilingualism and language disorders. The review article Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities by Dr. Fred H. Genesee compiles research evidence that busts two of the common myths.

Myth #1: Children with developmental language disorders should not be taught two languages. This myth is based on the assumptions that it will be easier for these children to learn and use one language than two, and that the use of two languages will make the disorder worse. Research has shown that bilingual children with developmental language disorders have the same difficulties in each of their two languages, for instance, they may struggle to use the proper verb tense (past, present, future) in both languages. Research has also shown that the severity of the disorder is the same for a bilingual child as it is for monolingual children with the same language disorder learning the same languages. The evidence suggests that learning two languages does not increase the impairment compared to children with the same difficulties who learn only one language, therefore, there is no harm in exposing a child with a language disorder to multiple languages.

Myth #2: Children with developmental language disorders should not be put in immersion programs. This myth is based on the assumption that students with well-developed language skills, especially literacy skills, are at an advantage compared to students with poorer language skills. It is thought that these children will face language challenges in an immersion program, for example a French-immersion program, resulting in worse language skills than if they were in a typical English program. To determine if this were the case, one study looked at literacy and academic achievement measures of immersion and non-immersion students who were similarly impaired or normal in their first language development. The study found that immersion students with low language skills demonstrated the same levels of English and academic achievement as similarly impaired students in the typical English program. So the immersion students were not performing worse than similar students in the English program, suggest that children with developmental language disabilities should not be excluded from immersion programs based the false assumption that they will achieve less in such a program.

The main point to remember is that bilingual children with developmental language disorders are bilingual within the limits of their learning ability. They may not learn or use their two languages perfectly, but nor would they learn or use any single language perfectly. Moreover, exposing any child to a language rich environment has many positive benefits, and a child should not be deprived of this opportunity solely because of language learning difficulties.


Genesee, F. H. (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2, 9-12.

Figure from Kandhadai et. al (2014).

What is Special about a Bilingual Environment?

Keywords: Mental abilities, Culture, Language cues, Culture cues, Language development, Bilinguals

A lot of research has shown that infants are able to learn two languages just as well as they can learn one. Growing up with more than one language in the home does not change how well or how quickly a child can learn language. In fact, some studies have shown that growing up in a bilingual environment can have a positive effect on a child’s mental abilities. One example of this is that bilingual children are more sensitive to the different cues of language – such as sounds, tone of voice, and word order – than monolingual children are. After around 6–8 months, monolingual children are only able to pick up on the cues of the language they are learning. Bilingual children however are able to identify these cues, in more than one language, long after this age.

A research review, Culture as a Binder for Bilingual Acquisition, by Kandhadai and colleagues suggests that one reason bilingual children are able to continue to notice these differences is due to the link between, or binding of, culture and language. Kandhadai suggests that these children may not only be sensitive to the parts of the languages that they are learning, but also the differences between the cultures that are linked to the languages. It is the overlap between the differences tracked in both culture and language that Kandhadai believes to help the children continue to separate the two languages and the situations they occur in. Some examples of the differences infants pay attention to in relation to culture include: music, face, dance, and food. The author expands more on how infants may track cues in both face and music. Examples that are provided are that infants, after 9 months, are able to differentiate between faces within their own racial groups better than faces that are not in their groups. Similarly after 12 months infants are better able to note the changes in rhythm of music that belongs to their culture. This evidence suggests that bilingual infants, unlike monolingual infants, are not only able to identify the cues of more than one language but also of more than one culture.

Since culture is the larger category, with language as one of its many parts, it is possible that being able to also identify the differences between cultures makes it easier for children to continue to make differences between the languages they are learning. This suggests that it is not simply the presence of two languages that a child requires to become bilingual. The presence and exposure to the culture that goes along with each language is also a very important factor in an infant’s bilingual environment.


Kandhadai, P., Danielson, K., & Werker, J. F. (2014). Culture as a binder for bilingual acquisition. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 3(1), pp. 24-27.

How the Infant-Caregiver Interaction Shapes Communication Development

Keywords: Communication, Joint attention, Cooperative communication, Responsiveness, Language development

We often underestimate the role of infants as communicators, especially before they start using words. Communication implies a back and forth between two people, so how do infants contribute to this back and forth? Well, in addition to spoken words, communication involves nonverbal aspects, such as gestures, facial expression and eye gaze. To understand how infants learn to communicate, we cannot look only at the infant’s behaviours or the language input provided by the parent or caregiver. Instead, the answer may lie in the shared verbal and nonverbal communication in infant-caregiver interactions. As stated in Two Minds Are Better Than One: Cooperative Communication as a New Framework for Understanding Infant Language Learning, infants and caregivers actively shape and are shaped by their daily social interactions. This article uses the term “cooperative communication” to describe the cycle of infant behaviour shaping parental language input and parent input shaping infant behaviour. For example, as infant babbling becomes more adult-like, parents preferentially respond to the adult-like sounds, and the infant produces more of the sounds that earn a response from the parents. In this way, their babbling develops to sound more adult-like.

This example brings up the concept of parental responsiveness, which refers to how quickly and appropriately a parent responds to an infant’s need, distress or attempt to get attention. In early infancy, this may be as simple as responding to an infant’s smile by smiling back. As an infant’s communication skills grow, parents change how they respond, once again highlighting cooperative communication in infant-caregiver interactions. For example, when a two year old child points out the window at a bird, the parent may respond by asking “What’s that?” to promote conversation because they know their child can say they see a bird. We also see here that communication may involve joint attention, times in which communication partners, such as infant and caregiver, are both attending to the same object and are aware of this shared attention. Joint attention provides an opportunity for parents to teach language. For example, extending the conversation about the bird to label it as a Bluejay. Infants are more likely to acquire a new word when the label is provided for an object they are attending to. It is more beneficial to language learning to follow an infant’s lead and talk about what interests them than to redirect their attention elsewhere or ignore their nonverbal initiations altogether.

The takeaway message here is that infant-caregiver interactions shape how both partners communicate. An infant's growing communication skills influence parental responses, and the parents’ verbal and nonverbal responses are important in shaping their infant's attention and language learning. The key for parents is to respond appropriately to communication attempts made my your infant, even if it is only a gaze or point out the window, and know that redirecting your infant’s attention actually weakens the effectiveness of a language learning moment. Cooperative communication, including responsiveness and joint attention, generates a more complete picture of how infant-caregiver interactions help infants become effective communication partners.


Renzi, D. T., Romberg, A. R., Bolger, D. J., & Newman, R. S. (2017). Two minds are better than one: Cooperative communication as a new framework for understanding infant language learning. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 3(1), 19-33.