BHSM – Can a child with Down syndrome be bilingual?

New parents always ask me a lot of questions about speech and their child with Down syndrome. One question I get several times a year is:

Can my child speak two languages?

Yes, a child with Down syndrome can learn more than one language! Children born into homes where the primary language is not English (in the US) are able to learn this language in addition to English if both are spoken to him. In fact there are a few reasons why this is encouraged:

  • Using a native language with a child with Down syndrome promotes parent-child interaction
  • Studies have shown that bilingual children with Down syndrome perform as well on language testing as children with Down syndrome whose only language is English
  • Knowing and speaking two languages allows children with Down syndrome to be more fully integrated into the culture of a bilingual community – this includes more interaction with extended family and friends

A nice explanation of how to langauge learning occurs in children with known language delays was written in 2008 by Elaine Weitzman of the Hanen Center. 

In my own experience, I have worked with children who are bilingual and even multilingual – one even spoke four languages. As your child ages teachers or therapists may asking you to “pick” one language over another. If they do please share the above list of considerations with them.

Below is a professional reference list supporting bilingual communication in children with Down syndrome:

Bird, E. (2006). The case for bilingualism in children with Down syndrome. In Language Disorders from a Developmental Perspective, Paul, R. (Ed). pp. 249-275.

Bird, E., Cleave, P., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A., and Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 14, 187-199.

Buckley, S. (2002). Can children with Down syndrome learn more than one language? Down Syndrome News and Update, (2), 3, 100-102.

Felmate, K. & Bird, E. (2008). Language learning in four bilingual children with Down syndrome: A detailed analysis of vocabulary and morphosyntax. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, (32), 1, 2008.