bilingual speech therapy

Bilingual Speech Therapy a Growing Need in South Florida

More than 20 percent of U.S. children are bilingual, a figure that continues to rise each year, particularly in a diverse region like South Florida. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) notes that there’s a common erroneous assumption that bilingualism contributes to childhood speech-language delays. However, those who practice bilingual speech therapy note that often what can seem to speakers of one language as a delay or disorder can actually be common processes of a child who is learning more than one language simultaneously.

At FOCUS Therapy, several of our speech, occupational and ABA therapists are bilingual and even multilingual. This uniquely situates us to not only treat bilingual children, but to better recognize in the first place if the speech patterns a child is presenting are truly indicative of a speech-language delay or if they appear on track developmentally.

Some of the speech patterns commonly mistaken for speech-language delays in children who are bilingual include:

  • Interference or transfer errors. This occurs when a child is shifting between two or more different languages.
  • Code-switching. Similar to transfer errors, this is when a child changes languages in the middle of a sentence or phrase. An example would be starting a sentence in Spanish and completing it in English.
  • Language attrition or loss. This is when fluency in the primary language may diminish if it isn’t practiced.
  • Silent period. This is when the child probably understands a lot more than they can actually say. They are focusing on hearing and comprehending the new language.
  • Dialect, accent and phonetic patterns. Kids who are learning a language with sounds that don’t exist in their first language are likely going to struggle with those new sounds. That’s true of almost anyone learning a second language, but it may be more pronounced in children. In English and Spanish, for example, there are numerous articulation variations with which bilingual speakers struggle. The sounds they make could be difficult to understand.

None of these are typically indicators that a child has a speech-language disorder or delay. But as a provider of bilingual speech therapy in Fort Myers, it’s something we are aware of when we treat a child.

Both diagnosis and treatment of bilingual children – whether in speech therapy, occupational therapy or ABA therapy – can be complex. We implement several strategies to ensure bilingual patients are successful. Some of our strategies include:

  • Involving and empowering parents. This is true for all of our patients, but especially so when we evaluate and treat a child who is bilingual. A critical part of what we do is educate parents on how to facilitate/encourage language strategies so that they feel confident in using them in everyday life. Consistent, repetitive practice of these strategies is important with any new concept, and language learning is no different. Parents can start by using simple sentences, speaking slowly, modeling commonly-used words and reading books to kids in both languages.
  • Use the strongest language at home. We want kids to be able to communicate effectively and understand what’s being communicating with them. If a child’s parents are truly only confident in their native language, they should be working to boost the skills in that language. Our bilingual speech therapy team can model a second language during therapy to help with vocabulary, etc.
  • Embrace the family’s culture. We recognize that sometimes, depending on the family’s dialect or culture, concepts might be represented with different words. Our speech therapists welcome families to share with us key aspects of their culture and terminology – and we’re open to incorporating these in our sessions.

At FOCUS, we also place a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning. We take a holistic perspective, looking at the whole child and family situation to help determine how we can best support them. Speech and occupational therapists sometimes co-treat, and this multi-disciplinary approach has highlighted the fact that managing frustration and self-regulation are just as key as acquiring/using new concepts.

At the end of the day, bilingualism can complicate diagnosis of speech-language disorders and delays, but it’s an experience that is truly going to benefit the child for rest of their lives, so we embrace it! With the right resources, speech therapists and other supports, we believe every patient has the power to succeed!

FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Some of our speech therapists are bilingual. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online for more information.

Additional Resources:

Bilingual Service Delivery, 2020, ASHA

More Blog Entries:

Conversational Scripts and How Our Fort Myers Speech Therapists Use Them, Dec. 6, 2020, Fort Myers Bilingual Speech Therapy Blog

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