Bilingualism in children with Down syndrome in Germany

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Wilken, E. (2003) Bilingualism in children with Down syndrome in Germany. Down Syndrome News and Update, 2(4), 146-147. doi:10.3104/practice.197


It is often reported by parents whose first language is not German that they are encouraged to speak only German with their child with a disability. Most parents find this an emotional burden, not to be able to talk to their child in their mother tongue. This is especially difficult when the first language is used with brothers and sisters, as the child with a disability is not included in the daily communication of the family. With no experience of the first language, the child is presented with German through early tuition and therapy.

While taking into account the differences in individual children and families, it is not necessary to sacrifice a bilingual upbringing - however, the structural circumstances of acquiring a language are important.

I have received many reports from parents of children with Down syndrome regarding their experiences with a second language, and have summarised a selection of these below:

To conclude, here is a short summary on the speech development of a man with Down syndrome who is now 22 years old:

Judging from the different experiences of parents of children with Down syndrome who have learnt two languages relatively well, one can recognise some similarities:

This conspicuous heterogeneity does not depend on the conditions in which the languages were acquired, as much as on the different individual abilities of the children themselves.

Etta Wilken is at the University of Hannover, Germany