As adults we understand the benefits that being bilingual means. However, children are not able to see the long term benefits, especially when acquiring a second language becomes a struggle.

It is important to note that most authors indicate that a speaker does not have to be fully competent and fluent in both languages in order to be considered bilingual. However, being bilingual refers to having access and using two or more languages on a daily basis (Baker 2006, Martin 2009).

In order for children to properly acquire a second language the need to communicate is vital. In British schools where the main language of development tends to be a second language for most students, proficient literacy and language skills will be developed.

Even if we are all aware of the benefits a bilingual education gives children, what happens when there is a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia?

It is important to understand that dyslexia is a continuum; this means it will be present through all of the person’s life and will have an impact in more areas than just learning (reading). Scientific research has proven that dyslexia is a neuro- developmental disorder with a biological origin. There is also broad evidence stating how dyslexia has a high genetic component meaning that most people can be born with it. (Frith, 2002, p48). Therefore it is important to note bilingualism should never be an excuse for difficulties in learning.

Dyslexia is a more complex condition than just a difficulty regarding reading and spelling skills. Therefore, early warning signs such as difficulty with language processing, verbal memory and verbal processing speed are also present in children at risk of dyslexia. It is important to note that dyslexia occurs in a range of intellectual abilities.

Even if we are all aware of the benefits a bilingual education gives children, what happens when there is a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia?

In order to address the questions at hand it is important to understand what happens when children develop in a bilingual environment. In Hutchinson et al, 2004 study they concluded early simultaneous bilingualism promotes higher development of sound and phonological awareness, which can transfer across languages. Therefore a poor acquisition of phonological skills, in both languages would be an indicator of poor literacy acquisition. (Loizou and Stuart, 2003).

When it comes to vocabulary, there are two ways in which we interpret words; their meaning and also the sense the word invokes. Vocabulary is a fundamental aspect in learning to read and assessing a child’s language proficiency. In other words vocabulary is not only necessary for writing or using technical words, but a way in which we develop a mental lexicon in order to arrange and share ideas about the world. Within the broad symptoms of dyslexia one of the most common ones is a lower verbal memory and fluency.

In contrast it has been proven bilingual people have more knowledge regarding language. In other words bilinguals do not have to relearn language structure when acquiring a new language as they already know how language works. Therefore bilingual’s have more ability to generalise and apply linguistic understanding across languages. (Durgunoglu et al 1993) That is why most children learn to read and write in one language and can easily transfer knowledge to the second language. Of course factors such as specific characteristics of each language should be taken into consideration. For example Spanish speaking children, who learn how to read and write in English, have more facilities when it comes to transferring their knowledge from English to Spanish.

The reason behind it being that English is considered a more complex and opaque (sound do not always have a one to one letter correspondence) language, whilst Spanish has a simpler structure and is more transparent.

Even when being bilingual seems positive both socially and developmental wise, what impact does it have on dyslexic children?

It is important to clarify bilingualism does not cause dyslexia; studies have shown bilingual children learning to read have similar deficits in both of their languages (Klein & Doctor, 2003). However, the acquisition of a second language in children with dyslexia might have a slower development due to all of the linguistic difficulties related to dyslexia. Therefore it is vital to support children from an early stage.

Hoeft et al., 2007 in their neurological studies have proven “early bilingual exposure might have a positive impact on the developmental plasticity of certain regions of the brain in people with dyslexia”. Most importantly it has been proven that children with dyslexia benefit from early intervention. Intervention can be done in any of the child’s languages; however, if available treatment in the most frequent language of reading is available, it is best for support to be given in the most used language when it comes to reading. Strategies given to the student can be used through both languages.

When it comes to identifying dyslexia the biggest difficulty for both parents and school staff is to clearly identify children’s difficulties, which might be masked or mistaken by a lack of knowledge in English or a second language. Therefore when difficulties in different areas such as: articulation, language acquisition, phonics or pre literacy skills are present across or in any of the child’s languages, it is important to seek for a professional’s opinion.

Dyslexia can also have an impact in other areas such as memory, processing speed, organization, visual processing, auditory processing or attention. During daily life time activities a child might be described as “forget full with toys, school equipment, books…etc” other children might have a harder time when following schedules or directions. Other times children who seem to struggle when having to narrate or explain their daily activities should be monitored.

Do you think your child might have dyslexia or other learning difficulties, what to do next? Firstly it is important to ask for both the teachers and a professional’s feedback. In Spain it is common for a Speech and Language Pathologist to be more aware of learning difficulties in children. The ideal situation would be for both professionals together with parents to gather up information in order to determine if an evaluation is necessary or if a support plan should start to take place. With bilingual children an evaluation in only one the child’s languages is not enough. Most of the time it is necessary for reading and writing evaluations to take place in both the child’s languages, this gives professionals a clear idea of the areas of strength and weakness regarding the student. A complete evaluation in order to conclude a student has dyslexia or a learning difficulty does require from several professionals. The most common one being a: psychologist and a speech and language pathologist. Other times professionals such as optometrist, audiologists or even an occupational therapist’s input might be necessary in order to conclude where a students difficulties lie. After an evaluation specific working accommodations and strategies should be given in order to better support and help children access the curriculum. Coordination between school and the different professionals working with a child is vital in order to better support students. If you suspect or feel your child is not performing as expected in school please do not hesitate to contact our learning support department.

Division of Speech Therapy
Valeria Ávila
Speech Therapist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English and Spanish
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