Can children with Down syndrome learn more than one language?
Does learning a second language affect progress in a first language? Some new evidence is beginning to indicate that children with Down syndrome can pick up a second language like other children, with no negative effect on their first language.
Buckley SJ. Can children with Down syndrome learn more than one language?. Down Syndrome News and Update. 2002;2(3);100-102.
Can children with Down syndrome learn more than one language? Does learning a second
language affect progress in a first language? These are questions that professionals
are often asked but there is very little research evidence available on which to
base advice. They are questions that are not easy to answer by designing a research
study as, in many countries, so few children with Down syndrome are expected to
learn more than one language. Parents could be very helpful in enabling us to answer
these questions by recording the progress of their children with Down syndrome when
they are in a bilingual situation and I hope that this article may encourage parents
to write to me with information on their own children's progress with a second language.
I am aware of many children and adults with Down syndrome who have achieved a functional
level of competence in speaking a second and sometimes a third language, through
contacts with families and professionals in many countries. I have also met children
with Down syndrome who can read and write in more than one language but we need
much more information their levels of general ability and on how they have achieved
this in order to advise other parents. Case studies would be a good starting point
for more research.
Learning a second language in school
In many countries, all children are expected to learn two or even three languages
and they may begin to learn more than one language before starting full-time education
or they may not be exposed to a second language until they are in school. For many
of these children, only one language will be spoken at home and the other language
may be used by some people in the community or only in school. Teachers and parents
want to know if the child with Down syndrome should be included in second language
learning. For example, should English speaking children with Down syndrome be included
in Irish or Welsh lessons in primary school? Should children with Down syndrome
learn a second language in secondary school when their peers begin lessons in the
new language? As far as I am aware, there are no published studies of children's
progress in these situations but I have met children with Down syndrome who have
done well when learning a second language in both primary and secondary school.
For example, I know children doing well in Irish language and Welsh language primary
schools even though their first and home language is English. One lad in an English
secondary school learned French in his first year as well as his non-disabled peer
group â€“ by going home and writing out everything he had to learn, as he knew that
he had to see the French words to remember them. His mother commented that he was
learning a second language in the same way as she had taught him his first language
â€“ by reading it. (For more on the benefits of early reading on speech and language
development see 5,7)
The bilingual family
The other common situation that raises queries is the bilingual family. In a bilingual
family, two languages will be used in the home because the first language of each
parent is different and they wish their children to be able to speak both languages.
If typically developing preschool children (under 5 years of age) are exposed to
two languages used naturally they usually have no difficulty in becoming fluent
in both languages.
Bilingual families are often advised not to speak two languages to babies and toddlers
with Down syndrome on the assumption that, since children with Down syndrome have
significant speech and language difficulties, they will be further disadvantaged
by hearing two languages. There is actually no published evidence to support this
view but there is one study in progress in Canada that suggests that there is no
disadvantage. At least in the early stages, children with Down syndrome who are
becoming bilingual are making the same progress in their first language as children
with Down syndrome who are learning only one language (monolingual). Preliminary
findings from this ongoing study by Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird and her colleagues
were presented in July at a joint conference combining the Symposium on Research
in Child Language Disorders held annually at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Madison, USA with the IX International Congress for the Study of Child Language.
Is bilingualism affecting their first language?
They are comparing the progress of 8 children with Down syndrome who are bilingual
with a group of 15 who are monolingual, matched for mental age. All but one of these
bilingual children are exposed continuously to both languages at home as well as
in the community. The chronological ages of the bilingual children range from 4
years to 11 years. The two groups of children with Down syndrome do not differ in
their English vocabulary sizes (English being the first or dominant language for
all the children) or in their developing grammar as measured by Mean Length of Utterance
(MLU). Learning two languages has had no negative effects on first language learning
â€“ no effects on vocabulary or on grammar in their spoken language.
Are they like other bilingual children?
When compared with typically developing bilingual children at the same stage of
language development, the bilingual children with Down syndrome were making the
same progress in vocabulary in both the languages. All the children with Down syndrome
(both bilingual and monolingual) were using shorter phrases and sentences than the
typically developing children, demonstrating the usual delay in mastering early
grammar that is shown by children with Down syndrome.
This is an important study but, as the presenters emphasised, it is a small study
which needs replicating and it is too early to see if bilingualism has any effect
on the development of later grammar in one or both languages. However, they conclude
that their study does NOT provide support for the advice to speak only one language
to babies with Down syndrome â€“ the advice that is usually given to parents at the
present time. This research group are also looking at the way the bilingual children
mix the use of the two languages and once they publish the findings of these studies
we will publish the full references for our readers.
There are two other published case studies of bilingual or multilingual individuals
with Down syndrome, one of an Italian woman speaking Italian, English and some French
 and one of twin girls who were bilingual
in speech (English) and in sign, British Sign Language for the deaf (BSL) [3,4] as they had profoundly
deaf parents, for whom BSL was the dominant language, and a hearing older brother.
(Deaf sign languages such as BSL are full languages with fully developed grammars.
Makaton is not a language, it is a set of signs used to support spoken language
learning â€“ without a grammar).
The Italian woman was reported as an exceptional case as she was seen to be particularly
able, with an IQ of 71. She had standard trisomy 21 and she had good spoken Italian
with better mastery of spoken grammar than is typical for a person with Down syndrome.
She also had some competence in French and in English. She had been in Belgium until
she was 6 years old on a NATO military base and therefore exposed to French. She
learned English from a British sister-in-law and she was able to hold a conversation
in English, watch English TV and speak on the phone. She had a full time job as
an adult in an Italian advertising agency. Her abilities demonstrate that having
Down syndrome does not prevent someone from learning several languages, as many
parents and professionals know from their own experience.
Does language modality make any difference â€“ is sign easier?
The bilingual twins, Sally and Ruthie, have Mosaic Down syndrome and normal hearing
and they have been followed for a number of years by Bencie Woll and Nicola Grove
in the UK. They were exposed to both BSL and speech in their home from birth and
have become competently bilingual. At three years of age, the twins' dominant language
was BSL sign and their progress in spoken English was delayed relative to their
sign language progress. They differentiated their language use like other bilingual
children, signing to other signers and speaking to other speakers.
Vocabulary learning may be easier in sign
At ten years of age, their dominant language was spoken English. They still signed
to their parents and other signers, but used speech to each other and to other speakers.
Their sign vocabulary was more extensive than their spoken vocabulary. In sign,
their vocabulary age for comprehension was at the same level as their mental age.
In spoken English, their vocabulary comprehension level was approximately two years
behind their mental age. This specific gap between mental age and language age is
the usual pattern reported for children with Down syndrome learning a spoken language.
The vocabulary advantage in sign might reflect that sign language was their parents'
first language therefore they may have experienced a richer vocabulary in sign.
These findings could also reflect a sign advantage for learning vocabulary, supporting
research that does indicate visual cues definitely support spoken word learning
and that spoken words alone are difficult for children with Down syndrome to learn.
Grammar learning is not easier in sign
However, the twins' development of grammar comprehension was equally delayed in
both languages, sign and speech and it is disappointing to learn that they did not
show an advantage in learning a sign grammar. This may be an important finding for
our understanding of the cause of grammar difficulties. Most children with Down
syndrome have difficulty mastering the grammar of their spoken language and have
vocabulary knowledge that is ahead of their grammar by their teenage years. It has
been suggested by a number of researchers that poor short-term verbal memory may
be a major causal factor, limiting the children's ability to process sentences and
access the grammar, and also that speech-motor difficulties may affect the production
of grammatical markers and complete sentences.[5,6]
If the main problem with learning grammar was linked to learning a spoken language
from listening, then children learning a sign language might be less likely to show
a grammatical difficulty and may have more fluent production in sign rather than
speech. However the twins do show grammatical difficulties in both languages and
use only short 'keyword utterances' in both speech and sign, suggesting a more fundamental
language learning difficulty is associated with Down syndrome, regardless of the
modality of the language. The girls are also now dominant in spoken English rather
than in sign, despite sign being the dominant language of their parents. If sign
was actually an easier language mode for children with Down syndrome, we might have
expected them to prefer it and to have become more competent in sign than in speech.
What can we conclude from the available information?
The evidence from individual cases and from these studies indicate that children
with Down syndrome can become bi-lingual and they seem to be doing so in the same
way and as typically developing children of the same mental age and first language
level. There is no evidence that learning two languages has any negative effects
on the development of the children's first language. The children with Down syndrome
show difficulties in developing grammar in both languages, even if one language
that they are exposed to is a full sign language such as BSL.
This suggests that the advice for parents should be to include their child with
Down syndrome in ordinary family and community life like any other child. If their
family is bilingual then they should use the two languages with the baby with Down
syndrome in the same way as they do with their other children and he or she will
be likely to cope perfectly well with this experience. Similarly, if other children
in the family and local community are exposed to two languages in school, the child
with Down syndrome can follow the same pathway.
I would offer two cautions to this advice based on my experience. Firstly,
I would monitor the progress of the child with Down syndrome carefully as some children
will experience more severe speech and language delays than others, and we do not
have enough evidence to suggest that all babies with Down syndrome will cope with
two languages. Secondly, all babies with Down syndrome need good language input
to help them with their first language and I would concentrate all additional speech
and language therapy and reading activities in the preschool years on the development
of the main language the child will need in the family, community and in the school,
With regard to teaching grammar, the evidence we have at the present time suggests
that the best way to teach grammar to children with Down syndrome is through appropriately
planned reading activities in their first language, as we have argued in the first
issue of this journal for 2002. [see 7,8,9] These reading activities are, of course, always
accompanied by speech so that the visual and the spoken language forms have the
same grammar and seem to work together to support the learning of one language.
We are exploiting the fact that visual short-term memory is better than auditory
short-term memory for children with Down syndrome.
- Kay-Raining Bird, E., Cleave, P.L., Thordardottir, E., Cupit,
J., Demers, L., Randell-Gryz, A. & Nowell, G. (2002). Language learning in children
with Down syndrome: the impact of linguistic context. Paper presented at
the Symposium on Research in Child Language Disorders and IX International Congress
for the Study of Child Language, Madison, Wisconsin, USA, July 2002
- Vallar, G. & Papagno, C. (1993). Preserved vocabulary
acquisition in Down's syndrome. The role of phonological short-term memory. Cortexx
- Woll, B. & Grove, N. (1996). On language deficits and modality
in children with Down syndrome: a case study of twins bilingual in BSL and English.
Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 1, 271-278.
- Grove, N. & Woll, B. (2000). The acquisition of signed
and spoken language by twins with Down syndrome: a longitudinal perspective.
Presented at 3rd International Conference on Language and Cognition in Down Syndrome,
Portsmouth, UK, September 2000.
- Foreman, P. & Crews, G. (1998). Using augmentative communication
with infants and young children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome Research and Practice,
5(1), 16-25. [Open Access Full Text
- see Chapman, R. S. & Hesketh, L.J. (2001). Language,
cognition and short-term memory in individuals with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome
Research and Practice, 7(1), 1-8. [Open Access Full Text
- see Buckley, S.J. (2001). Speech and language development
for individuals with Down syndrome â€“ an overview. The Down Syndrome Educational
Trust, Portsmouth, UK. [Open Access Full Text
- see articles on early reading in Down Syndrome
News and Update, 2.1. [Open Access Full Text
- see Buckley, S.J. (2001). Reading and writing for individuals
with Down syndrome â€“ an overview. Down Syndrome Education International, Portsmouth,
UK. [Open Access Full Text
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