When my older son was three-years old he often did this thing where he'd repeat a word several times before moving on to the next one. It was a sort of stuttering but I didn't get the sense that his problem was not being able to get the word or sound out. Rather it seemed to be a sort of strategy for stalling while he thought of the next word he was going to say. I began to wonder if the problem could have something to do with learning more than one language at a time. I spoke with both his teachers at school and his pediatrician (all of them Spanish) and they told me not to worry about it. I have since learned that in Spain (at least compared to the USA and the UK), they typically do wait until a child is older to begin addressing speech problems. Luckily, in our case the word-repeating went away on its own. Nevertheless, the experience got me curious about the differences in approach towards treating speech problems in bilingual children. I also wondered if there was someone in Barcelona that parents of English-speaking children could turn to if they were concerned about their child's speech development.
Chrissy Bruce is an American speech therapist who works with English-speaking children in Barcelona. I asked her some questions about what she does and because I know that a lot of you may be interested in this topic, I thought I'd share her answers here with you.
1. What is your background?
I am from the US (Arizona), and have lived in Barcelona for about 15 years. I came to teach English back in 1994 and fell in love with Barcelona. I did go back to the States from 1996-2000 for graduate school and to complete a fellowship as a bilingual speech-language pathologist in Washington, D.C., but ever since the first day I arrived in Barcelona, I have known this was my home. I am now married to a Catalan and have a trilingual four-year-old. I have been a licensed speech-language pathologist for 12 years.
2. How did you start working as a speech therapist in Barcelona?
I coordinated the special needs learning program at the American School of Barcelona for many years before opening my private practice in 2006. I now work very closely with many of the international schools in Barcelona and have the pleasure of working with multilingual children throughout Barcelona. I am absolutely passionate about what I do.
3. What languages do you work in?
I work primarily in English, but also work in Spanish in cases of Autism or other severe communication disorders. I design individualized, evidence-based treatment approaches unique to the needs of each child, and in the case of multilingual children, this may involve collaborating with other professionals who speak other languages that the child may be exposed to (Portuguese, French, Italian, Arabic or German). I do not work with monolingual Spanish or Catalan speakers, as I prefer to refer them to a native speaker so that they can receive the best treatment possible.
4. What are some specific speech/language problems that multilingual children may be vulnerable to?
I am so glad that you asked this question! I think it is a common concern that many parents have with regards to multilingualism. Some of the questions I hear most often include: Will exposing my child to multiple languages have a negative effect on their development? Can multiple languages confuse my child? Will my child end up without a dominant language? Do multilingual children talk later then monolingual children?
The good news is that none of this is true. There are many studies that show that multilingual children achieve the same speech and language developmental milestones as monolingual children. Even though you will hear otherwise from well meaning friends and professionals (even many pediatricians) exposure to multiple languages does not cause speech or language delays or disorders. If a child is not producing his or her first words by one year of age or not combining two words by two years of age, a speech language therapist should be consulted - it should not just be attributed to multilingualism. Here are some citations from researchers in multilingual development:
“No empirical evidence links bilingualism to language delay of any sort” King and Fogle (2006)
“There is no scientific evidence to date that hearing two or more languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition. Many, many children throughout the world grow up with two or more languages from infancy without showing any signs of language delays or disorder” De Houwer (1999)
Bilingual and monolingual toddlers have similar expressive vocabulary sizes when bilingual children’s vocabulary in both languages is taken into account.(Junker and Stockman 2002)
Children from bilingual homes did not differ in mean phrase length from those in monolingual homes. (Rescorla, L., & Achenbach, T. M. 2002)
Bilingual children produce their first words at about the same age as monolingual children – 12 to 13 months (Genesee, 2003; Patterson & Pearson, 2004)
5. How is the treatment of speech problems different in Spain than it is in English speaking countries such as the UK or US?
There are definitely some differences in treatment approaches between the US/UK and Spain. To start with, our early intervention programs are very different. We are trained to start working with children at the first sign of a delay because we know from research that the earlier a child receives help, the better the chances that we can close the gap early on. Oral language is one of the building blocks for cognitive development and later academic achievement as reading and writing are language-based skills, so if there is a problem in this area, we don’t want to waste any time. Besides, most kid really enjoy their speech and language sessions and parents are more relieved when they see their little one make progress. The importance of early intervention really cannot be underestimated.
6. What is your method of working?
It depends on the needs of the child. The field of speech-language pathology is very broad and I treat a wide variety of disorders ranging from lisps, stutters and articulation disorders to language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia and dysgraphia. We are also recognized as primary providers for the treatment of the communication deficits present in Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and genetic disorders that adversely affect speech, language or cognitive development.
I work on a strengths-based model where I look for a child’s area of strength and use it to help overcome the area of weakness. There are no magic cures for speech and language disorders, but by forming a partnership with the child’s parents and school, and using current, research-based intervention techniques, many speech and language difficulties can be overcome. My job is to help the children I work with make measurable progress and realize their full potential. I also offer many parent-based intervention programs for early intervention in language delays and stuttering.
7. Where are your offices located and how do people get in touch with you if they are interested in making an appointment?
I have a new office in Sarrià where I see clients. I am in the process of changing my website, so for the moment the best way to contact me is by telephone at 687 635 630 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am available for consultations regarding normal language acquisition and multilingualism as well as consultations regarding difficulties that children are having with speech, language or learning.
8. Do you have any resources (books, articles, web sites, etc) where you could point parents who are interested in learning more about speech development in multilingual children?
The book I most often recommend to parents is The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language by Kendall King. I also give a talk with a Barcelona-based learning specialist named Denise Marmelstein. It is called 'Raising Multilingual Children' and we do it a couple of times a year - if you would like to be on our mailing list or find about our next talk, feel free to get in touch!
Please note, the introduction to this blog was amended on July 11th, 2011, to take into account comments from Chrissy Bruce.