Autism and Multilingualism: A Parent’s Perspective

by multilingualmania on April 1, 2010

in Bilingual Myths and Misconceptions, bilingual parenting, Bilingualism, Special-Needs Children

Today’s guest post is a topic that is very dear to our hearts: fostering multilingualism with children who many people believe should not learn two (or more) languages. In honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2010, we are hosting a guest post by Sandrine Berges, a mother who is raising a multilingual son who also happens to be autistic. The following post is proof that ALL children are able to learn multiple languages!

It happened again last week. I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a colleague when she asked me point blank what language we spoke at home. I often get that question as my husband and I come from different countries and on top of that we’re expats in Turkey. This makes us, for all practical purposes, a trilingual family. But people don’t buy that and they want to know which of our three languages we really speak, when no-one is watching. It isn’t a question I much like to answer, and I usually try to shrug it off. I say vaguely, ‘it depends’. And it’s true, it does depend, and it’s not always easy to explain why we do what we do.

So let me try: my husband (British) and I (French) mostly speak English to each other – except when we slip into French, which happens. To our daughter, we’ve always both spoken French. Now she will allow us to speak English to her in non-francophone company. Just about. When home alone with her, I sometimes use a mixture of French, English and Turkish – occasionally all together in the same sentence – because it’s fun, and because it is sometimes the best way to express what we think or feel. My daughter who’s ten, is equally comfortable in all three languages, highly skilled at grammar and has a very rich French, English and Turkish vocabulary.

To our son, until last year, we would speak mostly Turkish. Now it’s become mostly French, with him still occasionally addressing us in Turkish. He’ll speak Turkish to Turkish speakers, and, in the last few months, he’s been trying out his English on our non-French-non-Turkish speaking friends.
So, yes, it’s complicated. And I don’t like to explain it because usually, before I’m done, I’ll be interrupted and told I’m doing it all wrong. ‘It’s really important’, they say, ‘that each parent should speak in their own language, at all times.’ Right.

If I was rude, (which I am on occasion), I would turn around and ask them what they knew of people like us, how much research had actually been done on trilingual families with one gifted child, one autistic, and two Ph.Ds, dealing with some circumstances that are not all that common, at least that are not usually found together. We wanted the children to learn French, but we knew it wouldn’t be easy if they also had to learn English and Turkish and only heard French from me. We’ve seen children failing to pick up a language because it was only spoken by one parent, and it wasn’t English. Or we’ve seen them learn it only to lose it because they spoke it so little. So we decided we’d speak French at home. We feel that was probably the right decision.

The kids were learning Turkish at nursery school, at home with their minder, and pretty much everywhere they went. By the time she entered kindergarten our daughter was fluent in both French and Turkish. We put her in an English speaking school and a couple months later she was fluent in that as well. By Christmas, she could not only speak English but also read it.

Our son started to speak late, a bit later than his sister, in both Turkish and French. But aged three, when he started developing symptoms of autism, he decided to ditch French, and from then on his Turkish developed very slowly. So we took him to a speech therapist, Turkish of course – we had no choice in the matter, because there were no others, and because our son had clearly chosen Turkish for himself. After a year or so he spoke better. We encouraged him as best we could by using all the Turkish we had to communicate with him, and by reading to him in Turkish every day. When his Turkish was good enough that he was beginning to communicate, we then sent him to a French school and he began to speak French again.

At that time our household was truly trilingual, with all three languages being spoken at dinner, and yet, this was a time when we were really able to communicate as a family. We started to develop a sort of dialect of our own, with a lot of loan words, borrowed turns of phrases, and accents that people simply could not place. I believe our speech was all the richer for it, and certainly, our writing never suffered. I started writing a book then, our daughter got top grades in her essays, and my husband published several articles. Around that time I took a trip to Ottawa and was delighted to hear groups of children speaking a mixture of English and French, people having conversations in two languages at once. A home from home, I felt, if we ever have to leave Turkey.

Now seven, our son speaks equally well in both French and Turkish. Not very well, true, but any difficulties he has are most probably linked to the autism, rather than to straightforwardly linguistic abilities. For example he still mixes his pronouns in both languages. And he sometimes speaks inappropriately, failing to answer questions, repeating the same thing over and over. But he speaks.

Now I’m sure you can imagine what kind of criticisms we received over the years and how we felt about them: if we’d been consistent, people said, our son would have spoken earlier. Or maybe we’ve confused him by exposing him to too many languages, caused him to become autistic, even. People suggested we go back to either France or England and speak only one language at home from now on. At this point I usually bite my tongue because I really need to keep my expletives for when my computer plays up or I spill hot tea on myself. Of course all this was nonsense! The autism had nothing to do with how many languages he spoke. True, his particular strand of autism is linked to environmental changes which trigger crises. But as he was born in a trilingual environment, that really wouldn’t have bothered him!

One woman once told me that a child could not develop emotionally unless they identified with their mother tongue. This woman was headmistress of an international school where most of the students were multilingual! What’s more, she wanted my children’s mother tongue to be English, i.e. their father tongue. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt about this conversation. I was glad to find out later that she was in fact entirely unqualified to make any such judgements (and possibly to be headmistress, but that’s a different matter). She felt she could pass judgement, assign blame, on no basis at all.

A few months ago, we were considering moving to England, and I got in touch with a group of people who either care for autistic children or, mostly, are autistic themselves to ask their advice. They unanimously were impressed that our son already spoke two languages and suggested I start him with English flash cards immediately, just in case. One person told me that as a child with autism they had been much more disturbed by the idea that there were several languages being spoken around them but only one at them, than later on, by learning to speak another language. The technicalities of having to learn another grammar, another set of words, were nothing compared to having to get one’s head around the idea that you’re allowed to communicate in one language but not another.

It is simply not the case that autism is a counter-indication to multiple language learning. It’s just another one of the many misconceptions that people have about autism. As Temple Grandin puts it, language itself is a second language for many autistic people who tend to think in pictures rather than words. So what harm is one or two more going to do them? And just think of the good it could do!

About the Author: Sandrine Berges lives and works in Ankara with her husband and two children. She teaches philosophy at a University and when she’s not busy blogging with her sisters, writes books on Plato and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both her children now go to the French lycee in Ankara, but she’s very glad they’ve learnt Turkish as she can really use their skills as interpretors! You can read more from Sandrine on her blog, Paris-Ankara Express.

Related Resources:

Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning

Bilingual Special Education Interface

Related Posts with Thumbnails

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

wenjonggal April 1, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Thanks for that. My son is not autistic but is language delayed, and I get this sort of “expert advice” from others who know nothing at all, and I also tend to smile and bite my tongue when speech therapists tell me I should speak ONLY English to my son at home (when I am attempting to do English, French and Mandarin as a single parent)… which is a nonsense given we live in Quebec. I am glad you enjoyed Ottawa. I suspect your mix of languages at the dinner table sounds a lot like us at home. Thanks for your post. Very affirming. Best of luck with your son and his English!

Sandrine April 2, 2010 at 12:24 am

Wow – three languages as a single parent! And I was complaining about the possibility of being the only French speaker! You’re doing something amazing, and it will pay off! Good luck with fending off the busy bodies!

multilingualmania April 2, 2010 at 7:09 am

Keep it up wenjonggal! Check out that book about dual language disorders by Fred Genesee that I posted. He is an expert in Canadian immersion programs (if you aren’t familiar with him), and discusses the same issue of doctors and speech therapists telling parents the same thing that you stated!


Rebeca Snowden April 2, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Hello!! This is just happening to my kids too! My husband speaks English and I speak Spanish (I come from El Salvador) and both our kids have special needs. My son was diagnosed with ASD when he was 3 and now he is 5. He pretty much understands both languages and choses to speak the words that he struggles less with. He is improving! You can see his gears moving in his head trying to say the right word for his request! I am so blessed to have kids like mine and looking forward to their success!!

Sarah April 3, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I don’t have kids, but i’m doing a research paper for my college English class on bilingual education. It is true that some people recommend the one parent one language approach, where the parent only speaks to their kids in one language.. however, that method might not work for everybody, we are all different and we can’t generalize. I also came from El Salvador 5 years ago and we chose to speak Spanish at home, but we always mix in some English words, it might sound funny but it’s easier sometimes because some words just don’t translate well. I’m also majoring in French and I also want to learn Italian, because I’m not a child anymore it might not be as easy for me, but when I have my children, I want them to speak the 3 languages I know too even though two of them are not my native tongues. I admire all of you because It is hard when people are questioning the way of raising your own children, but never give up! Children have the ability to learn more than one language, even if some people believe otherwise.

wenjonggal April 3, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Hi Melanie,
is this the book:
Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning (Communication and Language Intervention Series)


multilingualmania April 4, 2010 at 8:11 am

Yes, that’s it. It’s an introduction to some of the topics of language and learning disorders and dual language (or multi-language) development!

multilingualmania April 4, 2010 at 9:19 am

Most definitely! Every family is different and they have to make it work for themselves. Let us know if you need anything for the paper for your class-we would be happy to make recommendations for reading or answer any questions!!

Sarah April 4, 2010 at 11:05 am

thanks! my paper is not due until a month from now so i’m still trying to get as much information as possible, but i could use an online interview when i have the questions finalized because i would love to get a parent’s view on the issue.. i have interviewed students who have been born here but i don’t have any parent’s point of view, i will be in contact! again, thank you.

sadya April 5, 2010 at 1:50 am

Kudos to Sandra! now thats what i call good parenting. good job Melanie on getting Sandra to write for u.

Sandrine April 6, 2010 at 2:41 am

Sarah: There are a lot of multilingual families in my community, and I’d be happy to put you in touch with some of them for your project. And I’d be very glad to help.

Sandrine April 6, 2010 at 2:42 am

Thank you Sadya! It’s good to be told I’m doing it right for a change!

Sandrine April 6, 2010 at 4:16 am

Hi Rebeca: it’s great that your son is able to make use of two languages to express himself! When mine was that age, I found that the main struggle was to get him to say what he wanted, how he felt, rather than withdraw, have a tantrum, or help himself in the kitchen (though he still does that!), more than getting him to learn to speak any language properly. Good for you for helping him communicate! He certainly sounds like a very resourceful 5-year-old!

Isabeline April 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

I really enjoyed this article and identified myself in a three-language puzzle as well! I am Spanish mother-tongue, live in France and work in English, nothing makes me happier than getting to read about experiences alike.

Good luck to all of you!

Congrats again Melanie et bon courage Sandrine!

Sandrine April 7, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Thank you Isabeline! If you’re in Paris, you should probably get in touch with my sister Marianne who also speaks French, English and Spanish (she lived in Cuba for a year)! You can find her on our blog.

Sarah April 13, 2010 at 9:16 am

Hi Sandrine, I have the questions for my research paper. It’s a little interview, only 8 questions. And if anyone else would like to answer these questions I would appreciate it too. This will go on the appendix section of my research paper. Thank you very much for agreeing to help me with this.

1. What is the language spoken in your country of residence?
2. How many children do you have? Where were your children born?
3. What language/s do you speak? What language/s does your husband speak?
4. Do you believe in and encourage your children to speak more than one language? Why or why not?
5. Have you tried different methods to teach your children to be multilingual? Which ones?
6. Which method do you think worked better?
7. Many parents just give up because it takes too much work or they do not get support from their friends or husbands/ wives. Did you, at any point, think about giving up?
8. What advice would you give other bilingual parents who might not know how to help their children learn the home language?

Again thank you!

multilingualmania April 13, 2010 at 1:09 pm

-We will also post it later, to see if anyone else can answer! I’ll try to post it this evening, or put it on facebook.


Sandrine April 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Hi Sarah
Here’s my replies. I’ll send it out to some friends or direct them to Melanie’s facebook page.
1.What is the language spoken in your country of residence?
2. How many children do you have? Where were your children born?

2 children: one girl born in UK, one boy born in Turkey
3. What language/s do you speak? What language/s does your husband speak?
I speak French and English, my husband speak English, French and German. We both speak some Turkish.
4. Do you believe in and encourage your children to speak more than one language? Why or why not?
Yes – they have to just in order to communicate with their family and friends.
5. Have you tried different methods to teach your children to be multilingual? Which ones?
We spoke only French to our daughter for several years and mostly Turkish to our son for a couple of years (his choice). Otherwise we have tried to be as natural as possible – each member of the family speaking what they are more comfortable with.
6. Which method do you think worked better?
I think that both my husband and I speaking French to our children has helped our daughter become fluent in French. It seems to be generally harder to pick up the language that is not English in multilingual environements, so we made sure to reinforce that.
7. Many parents just give up because it takes too much work or they do not get support from their friends or husbands/ wives. Did you, at any point, think about giving up?
We considered it when our son was not speaking at all and people were telling us that we were confusing him with several languages. However it turned out he had autism and that this was not linked to multilingualism. We are glad we insisted because he is now able to communicate in French and Turkish, and on his way to learning English too.
8. What advice would you give other bilingual parents who might not know how to help their children learn the home language?
If one of your languages is English, then be careful it doesn’t eclipse the others. Also sending your children to a school in which the language is spoken will really help.
Good luck with the paper!

wenjonggal April 13, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Hi Sarah,
here’s my replies too:

1. What is the language spoken in your country of residence? French dominantly, english
2. How many children do you have? Where were your children born?
One child, born in China (adopted to Canada at 22 months)
3. What language/s do you speak? What language/s does your husband speak? English, French, learning chinese (mandarin). Single mom, no husband.
4. Do you believe in and encourage your children to speak more than one language? Why or why not? Most certainly I do. Our province is French, but our country and continent is bilingual or english and I don’t want my child to be hindered in the future knowing only french. I also want him to keep as much mandarin as possible so he can have that in the future, for heritage reasons.
5. Have you tried different methods to teach your children to be multilingual? Which ones? Daily immersion: English at home, French with friends and in the neighborhood, French at daycare. Having a native mandarin speaker come in weekly. Getting a LOT of media in all three languages: books, movies, songs, games. Limiting dvds to mostly french and mandarin, trying to integrate the other languages (he prefers English) in daily conversation and play.
6. Which method do you think worked better?
I think that it works best as we are doing it: that I reinforce the french from daycare with french books at home and talking about what he does and says in French in English. Having someone he likes speak chinese. I really wish we had mandarin immersion, ie two days a week daycare in mandarin like he has two days a week in French daycare, where all the teachers and children are basically monolingual francophones
7. Many parents just give up because it takes too much work or they do not get support from their friends or husbands/ wives. Did you, at any point, think about giving up? No, never. I am bilingual (actually became bilingual in French at university) and it opens so many doors for me socially and professionally, and I am learning mandarin. I would also speak Swedish and German if I had the time and energy to put on them. I started a blog specifically to reach out to like minded parents, as I don’t get a lot of support for multilingualism in our monolingual francophone environment.
8. What advice would you give other bilingual parents who might not know how to help their children learn the home language? Remember that anyone learning their first language is surrounded by it: speaking, conversations, radio, music, games, tv, books… and try to do that with all the languages you want your child to know… don’t turn learning the language into something academic only (though for a school aged child it is important to do academic too or the child will be iliterate in the home language). Make it fun, accessible all the time even if it is just taking family photos and writing in sentences yourself, or singing songs from your childhood while you play. Make sure the child knows native speakers that they like and want to communicate with and emulate: I think the number one killer is “why should I learn this language, no one speaks it, I don’t use it with anyone”. Make sure that your child has positive associations to the language: my son was disinterested in Mandarin until we got some English language dvds for learning basic chinese and he was so proud that he could speak more chinese than the cartoon character learning it! “mommy, *I* am KNOWING chinese!” and showing dvd of children living in China… he wants to do things “like the boy in China” (Families of the World dvd series… excellent). As soon as the attitude changed to positive half the job is done! A child will learn if they WANT to! And do NOT give up. A child may never be native fluent, but ANY is miles ahead of none.

Sarah April 14, 2010 at 8:31 am

Thank you all so much!! Speaking to people who have had first hand experience with this makes my research paper much stronger than just facts and statistics. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me out.

wenjonggal April 14, 2010 at 12:19 pm

No problem, Sarah. These are issues near and dear to our hearts which we live with daily. And we can only benefit from good research and academic interest in the topic! Best of luck with your paper!

Samantha YOUNG April 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Kudos for the enjoyable read, it was actually right what I was after. I look forward to seeing more of your blog.

Sandrine April 16, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Thanks Samantha!

Christine April 22, 2010 at 9:18 am

I loved this post–so interesting, and it’s wonderful that you’ve persevered. I had to laugh at the headmistress who adamantly wants the father’s language to be the “mother” tongue! She sounds like a bear of very little brain, if she can suggest that without irony!

Sandrine April 22, 2010 at 9:21 am

Thanks Christine! It felt good to have a laugh at her expense after what she put us through.

Wan January 26, 2011 at 7:21 am

Thank you for the inspiration and providing me with hope in my abilitiy to raising a multi-lingual son with autism. We live in France as my husband is French but I am Chinese-American so we speak in English, Chinese and French with our 2 kids. My daughter who just turned 4 is pretty fluent in all 3 but my son who will be 2 soon still refuses to speak. It’ll be a challenging road ahead of us but I’m so glad there’s hope.

multilingualmania January 26, 2011 at 10:17 am

It will be a challenge, but as Sandrine noted it can be done! We would love to hear more about how it’s going for you in the future! Just remember that they will not always be perfect in each of the languages, but they will at least have conversational fluency. Don’t let other people steer you away from what you want to do!

CELINE May 15, 2011 at 8:10 am

Great just read all those interesting stories and thank you for all being so genuine as our case is that my husband is very little at home due to his job months without seeing me so really we have the situation where i m french he s english and she was born in france and we spoke english whenever he was home (3WEEKS OR SO 4 TIMES A YEAR ) until then all was good she would understand him and answered back in french
But then move to northern ireland and after almost a year as i would speak french at home and it was english from my inlaws and the nursery etc but she wouldn t speak english at all so that scared me a bit then i started to speak english to her to give her a boost my plan was to do that for a year then i ve asked to see a speech therapist and now my daughter is 4 year old she communicates quite all right but more like a child around 3 ish and the speech therapist has told me that i shouldn t start french again for almost another year to make sure she catches up with everybody so i was frustrated and worried because french is half of who she is half her identity and we supposed to go to my family and friends and the speech therapist said it s ok but you and your husband should only speak to her in english at all time i was shocked and disappointed and i didn t want to have any disagreement front of my daughter so i kept quiet but since then i ve been raging as i m thinking surely some single mum who live abroad where they have to speak a different language must be able to cope etc reading about all of u gave me the confidence to do what i think is right THANK U

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