Short on time? Here’s the bullet point summary of this blog post. Things to know if you’re told to switch from two languages to one:

  • Most children, including most children with speech or language disorders, can handle two languages.
  • Modern research reveals many benefits to bilingualism, and debunks old negative myths about bilingualism.
  • Current best practices compel experts to only recommend switching to one language under specific individual circumstances.
  • When a family wants or needs two languages in their lives, specific circumstances where switching to one language would be best for the child are rare.
  • If you encounter a situation where you are told to switch from being bilingual with your child to using one language, yet you want or need to keep two languages in your life: weigh the pros and cons, make sure to speak with an expert with up-to-date knowledge in this field, find good resources such as the ones in this blog post, and when in doubt, seek a second opinion.

One day when my daughter was an infant, she had a substitute physical therapist filling in for our usual PT.

I walked into the therapy room as I usually do, narrating to my daughter in Russian about what we are doing.

“Mama’s taking off her shoes” I said, in Russian, “Then we’re going to play with a nice new –”

“Don’t do that,” the PT said abruptly, referring to my speaking in Russian. “You’ll confuse her!”

Not wanting to spend our limited physical therapy time discussing speech (a topic I could easily talk about for hours), I simply said “I’m a Speech-Language Pathologist, it’s definitely fine.” I said that we only speak Russian to her at home, so that’s the language that she knows.

Over the course of the session, whenever I needed to speak to my daughter, I spoke in Russian, as usual. “Stop speaking Russian to her, you’ll confuse her!” she said numerous more times while we were there. I became more dismayed each time I heard her say it.

I have a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology. I’m a certified teacher with bilingual extensions in Russian, French, and Spanish. I’ve studied bilingual language development extensively, and I even write a blog about raising multilingual kids.

But it still took just one voice to make me feel fear, guilt, and doubt.

Of course, that moment passed very quickly: I remembered everything I’ve learned, everything I know deep in my bones about the benefits of raising a bilingual child. I realized that this PT just wasn’t up to date with current research and best practices. She may have mistakenly held untrue beliefs about bilingualism, like that it confuses kids or causes speech delays, myths that I debunked in this recent video.  If I didn’t happen to be a specialist in bilingual parenting, though, I definitely would have felt shaken, especially as a first-time parent.

For any new parent who just wants to do right by their child, a professional opinion carries heavy weight, even if that opinion is outside the professional’s field of expertise. Authority itself is persuasive, but a wise professional knows their own limits. They don’t hesitate to delegate or make referrals, and they act on the fact that experts in other fields may have information that isn’t yet common knowledge.

In this blog post, I’m going to discuss what typically happens in the U.S., with English as the example of the majority language. As recently as a few decades ago, most child-rearing experts in the U.S. viewed bilingualism as an obstacle to overcome. Pediatricians and speech-language pathologists routinely told parents to “drop the non-English language” and use English only in response to any speech/language issue, no matter the individual details.

Fortunately, new evidence has turned the tables on those beliefs. The cognitive, social, and practical benefits of bilingualism are better understood by more and more professionals, and many negative myths about bilingualism have been dispelled by recent research. These days, experts with deep knowledge in this field recognize that the vast majority of kids — including those with speech or language disorders — are capable of handling multiple languages. Nowadays, experts only recommend switching to the majority language at home (in the U.S., English) under very specific circumstances.

Yet things don’t change overnight, and there is a well-known gap between scientific research and real-life practice. Countless parents have told me about pressure from professionals to drop the non-majority language in recent years. (As I mentioned above, there are indeed some specific instances where switching to majority-language only makes the most sense, like when the stress of maintaining two languages outweighs the benefits. But it ought not be a default recommendation.)

So, if someone tells you to switch from two languages to one language, what should you do?

#1. Reflect

Do you want to raise bilingual kids, or do your circumstances mean that you need to use two or more languages?

If your answer is no, and you don’t feel strongly that you either want or need bilingualism, then you should never feel obligated to implement it. Of course there are benefits to being bilingual, but it also involves investment of some combination of time, energy, effort, and money, especially in English-speaking countries where monolingualism is the norm.

If your answer is yes, you want or need your children to use multiple languages, great! Kids can handle more than one language, and there are many benefits to being multilingual. Now let’s delve deeper into knowledge and resources that can help you! Proceed to step two…

#2. Educate Yourself

Around half of the world’s children are raised with two or more languages. Being monolingual or multilingual are simply different states of being, neither of which is inherently superior.

A few important facts:

Children’s brains CAN handle multiple languages.

One language is not learned at the expense of another. The brain is not a bucket wherein the more space one language takes up, the less room the other language has. Bilinguals have more and denser grey matter in relevant areas of the brain than monolinguals. Knowing a language better simply means knowing that language better. It doesn’t necessarily mean knowing the other language worse. In a previous blog post, I gave tips for making sure that both of a bilingual child’s languages are kept up without losing the other.

Bilingualism doesn’t cause “confusion.”

Bilingualism does not cause speech delays and it neither causes nor worsens already-present speech disorders. A child switching between languages is normal, and is not a cause for concern.

A major reason why some people continue to recommend switching to speaking only one language is because they hold on to outdated myths about finite brain space and the risk of “confusing” children.

Get well-versed in the facts and you can avoid being swayed by arguments that rest on myths! Which leads to the next step…

#3. Find Good Resources

As stated above, some professionals may not be up to date with the current research: they don’t know that bilingualism does not cause speech delays, and it neither causes nor worsens already-present speech disorders. Thus, they may pressure families of kids with suspected or diagnosed speech/language difficulties to switch to one language only. (Or, they may even recommend English-only in any situation, as in my example above with my own daughter.)

You can empower yourself to feel confident in your own choices by educating yourself on the evidence-based information about bilingualism.

A great start is this ASHA post written for Speech-Language Pathologists. It clearly explains why automatically recommending that children with speech issues switch from multilingual to monolingual isn’t the best practice. This Smart Speech Therapy post digs into the research behind bilingualism’s benefits for kids with speech/language disorders in particular.

For those who like an in-depth, nuanced, thoroughly researched read, Dual Language Development and Disorders is a very informative book and that is written with both parents and professionals in mind.

A guideline that works for most situations is that adults who regularly interact with your child should speak any language that they’re fluent and comfortable in when they speak with your child. For example, let’s say there’s a mom, Guilia, who is fluent in both English and Italian, but her dominant language is English because she moved to the U.S. when she was a little girl. In this case, Guilia might choose to speak Italian to her son (even though it would be more comfortable for her to speak in English) so that her son has more exposure to her minority language. Even if Guilia’s son hears less English at home than his monolingual classmates, a typically developing child born in the U.S. and exposed to English at school and in his community is expected to pick up English just as fluently as his monolingual English-speaking peers.

The equivalent guideline for kids with diagnosed speech/language difficulties is a little more specific: to have adults who regularly care for your child speak the language to your child that these adults are most comfortable speaking. The logic behind this rule is that hearing as rich, varied, and complex a language example as possible is especially important for children with speech/language difficulties, since hearing such good language models helps build up the intricate scaffolding of important neuropathways that the brain needs for learning any language. In sum, parents of kids with diagnosed speech/language difficulties in particular are wise to consider which language(s) the primary adults in your child’s life are most comfortable speaking.

To illustrate how this might look in practice, let’s go back to the case of Guilia, a mom who is bilingual in Italian and English. Let’s say Guilia’s parents live with her and babysit often, and Italian is their dominant language, and they speak a little English. In this case, Guilia might speak English to her son because that is her dominant language, and have her parents speak Italian with her child, because Italian is their most dominant language. If Guilia’s parents switched to English, it would be tough for them, and they’d end up speaking and communicating less with their grandson overall if they’re not sure about grammar or how to say certain words in English. In this case, the best model of language that his grandparents can provide for him is in Italian, so that’s the language it makes sense for them to speak with him. Hearing models of any language with rich vocabulary and complex and grammatically correct structures helps a child develop skills that make learning other languages easier.

Families of children who struggle with language are most often told to switch to one language and stick to it. But what kids with communication difficulties truly need is extra language support. If switching to one language would lead to less language exposure overall in the child’s life, that’s one good reason to keep both languages.

#4. Dig Deeper

Think about why you’ve been advised to stop bilingualism.

Was it for reasons specific to your family’s situation?

Did you weigh the pros and cons of every option with the recommender?

Or was it a blanket recommendation given regardless of individual circumstances?

Every situation is different, and there are sometimes individual circumstances where the costs of maintaining two languages in a family outweigh the benefits, and the best course of action in that case may be switching to one language. That is why, when I work with bilingual children as a Speech-Language Pathologist, I look at all dimensions of the family’s situation, their wants and needs, and other relevant background such as the child’s medical history before making any recommendations.

A professional with deep knowledge of this topic will take into account at least the following:

  • Which language the important adults in your child’s life speak fluently
  • The language(s) spoken in the child’s larger social sphere (i.e. neighborhood, city, country)
  • The feelings of the child and the other members of the household regarding maintaining the heritage language
  • The child’s medical and developmental history

For many families raising bilingual children, switching to one language is not a simple matter, and it is not a decision to be made lightly. This is especially true for families passing on a heritage language, which lends a special connection to cultural background and to family members who only speak that language.

If you wish from the bottom of your heart to raise kids with more than one language, and someone recommends that you switch to one language only, I understand why you might doubt yourself – I’ve felt that moment of doubt, too! While there are no simple answers, empowering yourself through education and weighing all the options carefully will help you feel confident in whatever decision you choose for yourself and your family.

Finally, never hesitate to contact an expert if you have any questions or need guidance!

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype.