Can Children with Special Needs Be Bilingual?

January 11, 2013

The other day I received a note from someone who has a child with special needs and was wondering about bilingualism for his family. Because my personal experience in this area is limited, I thought I would search out some expert opinions and bring them together for this post. I hope these resources will be of some support to those raising kids with special needs.

First, a fine video from LinguaHealth with Dr. Brenda Gorman, a speech-language pathologist in the United States.

Ana Paula Mumy, a speech-language pathologist in the United States, has written a masterful guest post for Bilingual Monkeys which offers wise, encouraging guidance.
Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays

Lauren Lowry, a speech-language pathologist in Canada, provides sound, research-based advice at the Hanen Centre website. Her excellent article looks at children with a range of special needs.
Can children with language impairments learn two languages?

One of the studies mentioned in the video above is the work of Professor Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird at Canada’s Dalhousie University. A short post at the university’s website describes this research.
Children with Down syndrome can become multilingual

“Parents of special needs children including those with Down syndrome are frequently counseled away from bilingualism without the benefit of research to show how capable they actually can be. Ours is the first group study that documented that children with Down syndrome can become bilingual. There is no evidence in our study to suggest input should be restricted to a single language. In fact, these children can do very well in acquiring two languages.” —Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird

Professor Kay-Raining Bird sums up her findings and recommendations with regard to children with special needs and bilingualism in this excellent interview with Francois Grosjean at his blog Life as a Bilingual.
Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs

Professor Kay-Raining Bird has written a longer, more scholarly article on this subject at Bilingual Therapies, “a leading provider of bilingual speech-language pathology” based in the United States.
Bilingualism and Children with Language and/or Cognitive Disabilities

Elizabeth D. Pena and colleagues have found, in a study published in The American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, that bilingual children are no more at risk of language impairment than monolingual children.
Bilingualism does NOT increase risk for language impairment (blog post)
Risk for Poor Performance on a Language Screening Measure for Bilingual Preschoolers and Kindergarteners (research article)

Pamela Wilson, the Children with Special Needs Editor at BellaOnline, provides wise advice, and a list of links, in a post at the BellaOnline site.
Bilingual Children with Down Syndrome

Eliana Tardio, a mother of two bilingual children with Down syndrome, shares her encouraging story at SpanglishBaby.
How to Raise Bilingual Kids With Special Needs

Eugene Ryan, a university teacher in Japan and the father of a boy with autism, recounts his family’s early struggles and successes in a two-part interview at Bilingual Monkeys.
Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 1
Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 2

Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz, who has a daughter with autism, offers an inspiring account of her experience and research at Growing Up Bilingual.
Autism and Bilingualism: Our Family’s Journey

Sandrine Berges speaks frankly about her family’s multilingual journey, including a son with autism, in an eloquent post at InCultureParent.
Autism and Multilingualism: A Parent’s Perspective

Also at InCulture Parent, Catherine Heemskerk shares her encouraging story of pursuing a bilingual path with her son, despite professional advice to raise him monolingually.
Autism and Bilingualism: Why I Ignored the Professional’s Advice to Drop My Son’s Second Language

Olga Mecking describes the potential impact of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) on a child learning multiple languages in a thoughtful piece at The European Mama.
Raising Multilingual Children with SPD

And finally, to exchange experiences and support with other parents, visit The Bilingual Zoo. This is a warm, lively forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids.
The Bilingual Zoo

How about you? Are you familiar with other pertinent resources for children with special needs? Please add them below!

1 cyrille, le praticien du bilinguisme January 12, 2013 at 5:57 am

Hello Adam,
I do not have special resources about that but some experience as I have children bilinguals and one of them who is a bit different.
I am sure that bilingualism in case of disabilities is a gift as it will increase the ability to communicate, to be more flexible about language and understanding.


2 Adam January 12, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Cyrille, thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree with your thoughtful perspective. Yes, bilingualism is a great gift and we have the power to help give that gift to our children. Best wishes to you and your family.


3 Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz January 13, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Adam thanks so much for sharing! My daughter has Autism and even though she struggles with language and communication in general she is bilingual and I truly believe (and she is proof) that being bilingual has been incredibly helpful for her in so many ways. Check out my article – Autism and Bilingualism: Our Family’s Journey:

Would really appreciate any input, thoughts or comments! Have an awesome weekend!


4 Adam January 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Paula, I really appreciate you letting me know about your article. It’s terrific and I added it to the list of resources above. I hope other families who have children with autism will find your article and follow your wise example. All the best to you and your daughter!


5 Stephanie-InCultureParent January 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm

We published this article about autism and multilingualism:

And from my own experience, my oldest daughter was diagnosed with dyspraxia when she was 2, which is a speech and motor skills processing disorder. We never once questioned her bilingualism or our commitment to it, not even when a speech therapist told us to only speak to her in English to help her English along (as she spoke very late and had trouble even in English). We luckily knew enough to ignore her poor advice! And now (four years later) she has almost no speech difficulties and is learning her third language.


6 Adam January 18, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Stephanie, thank you for the link to an excellent article at InCultureParent. I’ve added it to the list above and hope that others will find it helpful and encouraging.

And thanks, too, for sharing your own encouraging story! Your family’s persistence has clearly paid off!


7 Olga @The EuropeanMama January 31, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Thank you, Adam for this article! My girls both have Sensory Processing Disorder, which affects their language learning in different ways. My oldest started speaking later and her speech was not always clear. We continued to speak our languages to her and sent her to a Dutch daycare. Of course we were told that she didn’t speak enough Dutch (or German, from my parents-in-law), that it was because of her multilingualism, and that we should take her to additional Dutch classes. Of course, we didn’t, because we knew more Dutch was NOT what she needed. She is now 3,5 and is learning vocabulary and grammar at a pace she didn’t have as a baby. Her Polish and German both got better (with German being her primary language), as did her Dutch. My younger daughter is almost 2 years old, and she is not walking by herself – while she was much quicker to talk than her big sister. I can see how her wanting to learn to walk affects her speech – she is quiet for large amounts of time because she concentrates on walking. In some children with SPD, even simple activities can cost vast amounts of energy…but she is learning all 3 languages as well, and is quick and eager to learn to talk. I also have SPD and have learned 5 languages myself. Here’s my article about it – while SPD is not a recognised disorder, and it’s hard to explain, to me it seems real, and explains many of the problems I’ve been having:

Btw, Stephanie, your article is great!


8 Adam February 1, 2013 at 6:20 am

Olga, thank you for your comment and for pointing me to your blog post. I’ve added the link to the list of articles above. I hope others who may share similar concerns find it helpful.

I wish you and your daughters all the best! It sounds like they’re both doing well with their multiple languages!


9 Elizabeth D. Pena December 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm

We also have a study on risk for language impairment and found that bilinguals are no more likely to fall in the risk range compared to monolinguals.
here’s the paper:
here’s my blog post about it:


10 Adam December 21, 2013 at 8:33 am

Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your good work. I’ve added these links to the list above. Cheers from Hiroshima to you and your colleagues!


11 Gaby Cahen December 22, 2013 at 2:39 am

Fantastic list of resources here! I have written a post on our website redirecting our readers here; but I wonder if you would also be happy for me to reproduce this list in our “resources” folder?
Gaby from Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh


12 Adam December 22, 2013 at 7:17 am

Gaby, you would be welcome to reproduce this list on your site. I’ll continue to add to it, too, as I become aware of other resources on the subject that may be of interest. Thank you!


13 Liz May 16, 2014 at 5:48 pm

When my autistic daughter was 4 we went to Early Intervention for her communication issues. My daughter was very hesitant at first and needed a lot of encouragement from me. Her therapist then asked me to help by only speaking ML with my daughter during therapy (until then I only spoke ml with my daughter).

I decided to show my good will and gave it a try.

The result was that my daughter was so shaken by the fact that I suddenly spoke the “wrong” language with her that from then on she would only interact with the therapist at sessions, since the therapists language choice at least made sense to her.

So the experiment was a success, even if not in the way the therapist had expected.

My daughter is now fully bilingual, even if she still struggles with expressing herself, particularly in emotional situations. My other children never had any problems with bilingualism or speech in general.


14 Eugene May 21, 2014 at 10:33 am

Hello Liz,

Adam told me about your post, as the experience of my family seems similar to your own. I did an interview for Bilingual monkeys about our family here:

I’m really pleased to hear that your daughter succeeded in becoming fluently bilingual. I hope that our son can achieve the same goal. Our experience as a family with being pressured to go monolingual made me want to reach out to other parents to let them know that current scientific understanding does not support such a decision. As a consequence of this I joined a research group on multilingualism and ASD. Our website is here:

My goal is still to reach out to other parents, to share experiences, knowledge and the latest research. I don’t wish to push, but I would be really interested to hear about your family’s journey. Anyway, all the best and good luck for you and your family in the future.



15 Catie Heemskerk February 11, 2015 at 11:40 pm

Hi there. I am a mum raising bilingual boys. We live in Holland, dad is Dutch and I am English. We use the OPOL approach. My oldest boy has ASD. I have written about this previously. It is good to see more information coming. I spoke with Jim Cummins about the lack of research. We were advised to bring our son up monolingually. I am very glad I ignored the advise. Here is a link to my story.

Keep up the great work!!!


16 Adam February 12, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Catie, thank you for alerting me to your post. I really enjoyed your story and I’m glad that your son has made such positive progress in both languages. Good for you, and good for your son!

I’ve added your post to the list above and I expect parents in similar circumstances will continue to be very encouraged by your experience. :mrgreen:


17 Sally September 28, 2019 at 5:07 am

I have a student with Down Syndrome who started junior kindergarten last year and is now in Kindergarten. Her family speaks High German (1st language) and English (second language). When she started last year she was basically nonverbal with little to no spoken words – that is the major reason they sent her to school. After going to school she started to speak basic words (hi, bye, go etc. ) in English and a few basic signs. This year she is flourishing with communication – she is talking much more now in English. At home her parents say she speaks very little in either German or English. At school we are trying to decide if we should be teaching her German words along with the English (no one at school actually speaks German) or do we continue with English and have the parents work on translating English words to German to help her with both languages that way? Any advice would be great! THANKS!


18 Adam September 30, 2019 at 10:04 pm

Sally, it’s difficult to offer specific advice without knowing the full details of the situation, but since children with Down Syndrome are quite capable of acquiring ability in more than one language, perhaps the school could emphasize English while the parents emphasize German. If the school and family can work as a team in this way, seeking the most effective methods for this particular child, then I suspect that she will gradually become communicative in both languages and learn to distinguish their appropriate use based on the setting and speaker.

For more concrete support, I would encourage you to reach out to a (bilingual) specialist on children with Down Syndrome and their language development.


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