Can children with Down syndrome learn more than one language?

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Sanda, L. (2003) Can children with Down syndrome learn more than one language?. Down Syndrome News and Update, 2(4), 145-145. doi:10.3104/dsupdate.196

I was really interested in your article on children with Down syndrome learning more than one language. This subject has fascinated me for some time, ever since we were told at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital shortly after Vanessa's birth (seven years ago) that it would be best not to bring Vanessa up bilingual. I should add that, at this time, no one knew that Vanessa was to go on to have severe health problems in the first year of her life, leaving her with considerable breathing difficulties and a severe/moderate hearing loss requiring bilateral hearing aids. Factors which have of course contributed to her lack of speech. Although Vanessa is a very competent Makaton user and a good communicator, she has little if any intelligible speech. Nevertheless, she is currently in P2 at mainstream school and has convinced her teachers that she is capable of understanding what she is reading and is currently working on making her own sentences with the words she can read and understand.

Vanessa with her Spanish father, Manuel, at home in Scotland

Vanessa with her Spanish father, Manuel, at home in Scotland

As you know my husband is Spanish and speaks in Spanish to all three children when he is with us at weekends. However, similar to the advice in your article he has always used English when he has been working with Vanessa on targeted language activities such as reading, sound cards, etc. He also uses Makaton to support both Spanish and English. Vanessa can understand the basic Spanish phrases Manuel uses with her around the house e.g. "Give me a kiss", "let's go", "where is …?" The key for me is that whether the language is in Spanish or English it has to be at her level of comprehension. We could teach her a new word in Spanish or English and she could learn and understand it as well as learn who to use it with. We would just have to apply the same rules i.e. lots of repetition, lots of context, pictures, etc. In fact, the same also applied to her learning some BSL. She had a teacher for the hearing impaired who used BSL instead of Makaton. Some of the signs are different and Vanessa could understand the teacher's BSL signs and knew which ones to change from Makaton to BSL when communicating with her.

Vanessa, with brothers Martin and Charlie, in Spain

Vanessa, with brothers Martin and Charlie, in Spain

The other interesting thing is that Vanessa's two brothers, who are four and two years, follow the same pattern of learning a second or subsequent language as Vanessa. When they hear a new word in Spanish, they have to hear it many times, albeit much less than Vanessa, before they start to use it spontaneously and it becomes natural to them. The younger boy is at the stage of hearing a Spanish word and copying it in speech. The older boy can now produce spontaneous Spanish in situations which are very familiar to him. They followed the same pattern in learning Makaton which for them was easier to produce spontaneously than spoken language just as it was for Vanessa.

In my opinion, Vanessa's facility for learning Spanish is no different from her brothers'. She just needs an extensive level of input whether it be in Spanish, Makaton or English. She also has the same severe difficulty in producing speech whether it be in Spanish or English.

Lorraine Sanda is a parent living in Scotland, UK

A photograph of a child with Down syndrome

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