My children are bilingual, including my daughter who has Cri-du-Chat Syndrome, a disability that affects her mentally and physically. She’s not the only bilingual person with special needs, though. In fact, I know a young adult with Down Syndrome who is trilingual. And I read about another boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder who speaks at least four languages. This goes against the belief of many educators and therapists that children with special needs should focus on one language only. Most of the research focuses on three specialty groups: Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Down Syndrome (DS), and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but the researcher still believes that other disabilities can learn a second language as well. This is great news for CCKs (Cross-Cultural Kids) and TCK s(Third-Culture Kids) who have special needs and their families who are raising them.
My daughter is fairly non-verbal, but she is able to communicate in both English and Chinese. She uses American Sign Language (ASL), speaks simple words in both languages, and sometimes uses communication boards. We speak mainly English at home and she goes to a Taiwanese special education school where they speak Chinese. Honestly, like most Third Culture Kids she is comfortable living in both worlds. It’s part of who she is.
But, what about just teaching a child with special needs a new language? Are there any benefits? Should this even be done? I have had the opportunity to teach English to adults, as well as high school students with special needs in Taiwan. I’m not an expert, as I am still learning how to do this. I have found the website Language Without Limits to be very encouraging. Here are some benefits they list on their site that I have observed in my daughter, as well as my English club students.
Language learning benefits for people with special needs
1. “Research shows that bilingualism, even partial bilingualism, can have a beneficial effect on the brain development.”
We know this to be true for typical learners. Why would it be different for most people with special needs? Most children with special needs do not have the opportunity to study a second language, and if they speak a different language in the home than what is the majority language, they are asked to stop using their “home” language. Just because the person may be slower in learning, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the opportunity to learn a second language. The problem is though, according to the interview in Psychology Today, that there are few programs, funding, or trained teachers to move forward. Honestly, I feel that the research is so new and not well known. Hopefully, this will change over time as more people become aware of the possibilities.
2. “It’s another way for children with delayed skills development to revisit basic concepts and to learn social skills in a way that seems more interesting and grown up.”
During one of my lessons, we made fruit milkshakes. The students not only learned names of fruit but also revisited colors and numbers. In the school, they teach students life skills in the kitchen, so this lesson gave them an opportunity to use those skills. Plus they had to decide what fruit they should mix together for their milkshake.
3. “All children need to learn to accept and value people from backgrounds different from their own.”
Language is just one aspect of culture. I have the opportunity to introduce a different culture to my students as I teach them and I learn a bit more about theirs as well.
So, should people with special needs have the opportunity to learn a second language? I believe so, especially if they want to learn. Will all people with special needs who study learn a second language? This is hard to say. Even some typical learners struggle with learning languages, so it is fair to say that some people with special needs will struggle and maybe not master the language. I think Language with Limits says it best, “Experience has shown, that contrary to common expectations, all but a very few children can benefit from language learning, provided that the content offered and the methodologies employed are appropriate for their learning needs.”
So, when people ask me why I teach English to people with special needs in Taiwan I ask them, “Why not?”by