Auditory-Based Bilingual Children in North America: Differences and Choices

By Rhoades, Ellen A.; Perusse, Martha et al. | Volta Voices, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Auditory-Based Bilingual Children in North America: Differences and Choices


Rhoades, Ellen A., Perusse, Martha, Douglas, Wm Michael, Zarate, Cristina, Volta Voices


Speaking multiple languages constitutes the norm in many countries. In Quebec, Canada, additional French education is expected for all English-speaking children.

And, in the United States, bilingualism is becoming an increasingly desired choice for many families. In both countries, supporting a family's anchor language is an educationally necessary option (the anchor or native language is the language most often spoken at home and outside the classroom). There are data that show when the language spoken at home is not supported until linguistic proficiency is established, the child may never learn the majority language well enough for effective communication and for reading purposes. This is known as subtractive language acquisition, as it negatively impacts learning (Pearson, 2008).

There are many advantages to speaking more than one language. Data show that, compared to monolingual children, bilingual children demonstrate improved executive functioning. This includes better divergent thinking, greater cognitive flexibility, improved selective attention and a broader level of understanding of other perspectives. Bilingual children also demonstrate increased metalinguistic awareness, such as improved communicative sensitivity and a higher degree of introspection. Moreover, bilingual children show increased cultural sensitivity as well as greater access to their family heritage and extended family network. Last but not least, bilingual children represent an improved future economic asset in our increasingly global market (Rhoades, 2008).

Given current hearing technology, children with hearing loss can learn to understand and speak more than one language. At the recent AG Bell Biennial Convention in Milwaukee, Wis., a variety of video presentations demonstrated this ability during a short course. The purpose of the short course was to review and share existing data (Phillips, 1999; Thomas, El-Kashlan & Zwolan, 2008; Waltzman, Robbins, Green & Cohen, 2003) and discuss current studiesin-progress that support multiplelanguage acquisition for children with severe to profound hearing loss.

However, there can be obstacles on the road to bilingualism. One big obstacle is the lack of bilingual teachers and clinicians in every program. Another obstacle is the lack of sufficient immersion in two languages. It is well known that with less than 20 percent exposure to any language, children may understand that language but not speak it (Pearson, 2008). Some children become simultaneously bilingual, prior to 3 years of age. Other children learn two languages sequentially; that is, they learn the second language at 3 years of age or later. It is also well known that children who do not attain linguistic competency in their native language will have far greater difficulties learning a second language (Rhoades, 2006). Therefore, first and foremost, parents must actively participate in the language acquisition process so that the child has sufficient exposure to the native languages being learned.

In a bilingual family in the United States, when a young child with a hearing loss does not yet show dominance in one language it is critical to actively support the language spoken at home while simultaneously conducting weekly therapy sessions in English, the majority language in the United States. A child who has weak neurological building blocks, such as poor working memory, may not be a good candidate for bilingual education since personal resources can be over taxed when learning two spoken languages simultaneously.

The interdependency of culture and language must be considered. In order to meet the needs of bilingual children, an intensive fact-finding mission should be initiated. Ideally, this includes a home visit and many questions to learn about each family's cultural and language practices (Rhoades, 2007). Of course, this should also include determination of the child's auditory potential and current communicative proficiency in whichever languages are spoken. …

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