Published on April 11th, 2017


Language Dominance Shift in Bilingual Children With SLI

By Chantal Mayer-Crittenden

Have you ever heard an adult say: “I used to speak French as a child but now I feel much more comfortable speaking English?” This is a very common phenomenon called language dominance shift. It is seen most often in regions where children are exposed to the English community language more than their native minority language. For some, it’s a lifelong struggle to maintain proficiency in a minority language, where one has to constantly seek out opportunities to practice that language—If you don’t use it, you lose it!

Now, what about those who have a specific language impairment (SLI)? Can they maintain proficiency in their minority language?

Researchers agree that SLI is a neurodevelopmental disorder with genetic components. SLI interferes with a child’s brain development which, in turn, causes difficulties with language learning.

Children who have SLI have difficulty understanding language, learning language and speaking. They may have a hard time putting sentences together, using the proper grammatical verb endings or even coming up with a word they want to use. Children with SLI often use simpler language than their peers. Some may even omit certain parts of a word and, at a young age, some might sound like they are mumbling. The latter usually improves with age, but many other difficulties persist.

Children with SLI might also have difficulties with their receptive language. However, this is much less obvious. Some might seem to not pay attention, to misbehave or to be lazy. In reality, they might only pick up the odd word here and there and may not be grasping the full message, which makes complex sentences a real challenge. This issue can be due to a difficulty figuring out the meaning of words. Words that are not frequently used might be difficult to understand. The same goes for words that are difficult to imagine. If I say “apple,” a picture of an apple pops into your head. But if I say “dimension,” that word is difficult to represent by an image and is more difficult to grasp.

To speech-language pathologists (S-LPs), these difficulties may be obvious. To an elementary teacher, a daycare provider, a tutor or even a parent, these difficulties may go unnoticed. Disorders such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism typically have more obvious symptoms, which is why more people know about these disorders. SLI is a hidden disorder, making it much more difficult to identify. It’s important to identify SLI at an early age. However, this is often difficult, even for a trained S-LP, when children are learning more than one language. Bilingual children who have SLI might appear to be having difficulty learning the second language, when in reality, their difficulties appear in all languages.

We know that solid first language development can facilitate the acquisition of a second language. Difficulty learning the first language may lead to inadequate skills in both languages. It has been shown that insufficient abilities in the first language adversely affects second language development. The key to preventing this issue is language exposure and early identification.

Most kids—including those who have SLI—will have a dominant language and a non-dominant language. The dominant language is typically the language to which they have received the greatest amount of exposure. However, the dominant language can shift over time. Children who learn a majority language (i.e. English) as a second language often become dominant in that language.

The maintenance and continued development of skills in a minority first language depends on how much exposure they get to this language. Some experts say that children need to be exposed to a language 40% of their waking hours in order to become proficient in that language.

Studies consistently show that from early to middle childhood there is a shift to greater proficiency in the majority language. This shift is due to the rapid acquisition of the community language combined with the slowing, stagnation or loss of the minority language—a consequence of different social experiences, opportunities and demands for the two languages. Note that this is not the case, however, for children who learn the majority community language (i.e. English) at home and attend French immersion programs for example.

Studies have also shown that, compared to typically-developing bilingual children, children with SLI who have a minority language as their first language are more at risk of losing their first language or early plateaus if this language is not supported.

As the parent of a bilingual child with SLI, I battle every day with these notions. My daughter learned English around the age of 4, making her a sequential bilingual. French is her first language, but we live in a predominantly English community. Even at her French school, children often converse in English in the hallways or in the school yard. She spends roughly 42% of her waking hours in English and 58% of her time in French*. I was stunned by these numbers because I always felt that she was exposed to a lot more French. However, when I actually broke down her week, it made sense. My husband and I speak English to each other and she swims competitively for the local synchronized swimming team where all of the activities take place in English. Several kids in the neighborhood with whom she plays are Anglophone and she only watches TV (Netflix) or YouTube Kids in English. Minutes become hours and hours add up quickly!

I have always spoken to her in French and my husband learned French with the kids so he speaks to her mostly in French as well. However, I noticed during the summer break, and even more so over the recent Christmas holiday break, that she seemed to default to speaking English to myself and to her siblings whereas my other two kids continued to use French spontaneously. I calculated the hours of exposure for that week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and the percentages changed drastically. First, there were fewer hours of language exposure. This is to be expected because children often take on activities that require very little talking (eg. drawing). Second, she was mostly exposed to the English language due to family visits with my husband’s side of the family, time with friends and activities such as downhill skiing and public swimming. Overall, my daughter was exposed to the English language 85% of the time and to the French language 15% of the time. This change in language exposure seemed to turn off her French language switch and I had to constantly remind her to speak French to me and to her brother and sister. Once school resumed, this was no longer the case! Her French switch was turned back on, so to speak.

I found this phenomenon fascinating and did a bit of research to see if this had been studied. From what I could find, nothing has been done on this topic. Is this an indication that her language dominance may eventually shift to English, the community language? Are the cognitive demands too high for her to consciously use the French language when submerged in an English environment? Is this the case for most children with SLI? Food for thought. I hope to find out!

*To help parents make this calculation, I have created a form that can be used for this purpose.

About the author:

Chantal Mayer-Crittenden is an experienced speech-language pathologist specializing in bilingualism, primary language impairments (PLI) and ADHD. She completed her PhD in 2013 at Laurentian University, Sudbury. Her thesis is entitled   “Second language learning for majority-language children in a minority context: Language impairment or typical second language development?” She is the director and an associate professor for the School of Orthophonie (Speech-Language Pathology) at Laurentian University and has presented at both the national and international levels on the topics of majority language learners and primary language impairments. She is also the proud mother of three bilingual kids.

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