Multilingualism and language impairment have been considered risk factors for children’s linguistic and academic development. However, the effects of multilingualism remain contested. Some studies also report positive effects deriving from multilingualism, such as an increase in metacognitive and metalinguistic skills. McLeod et al. aimed to contribute to understanding the role of multilingualism in student’s academic development by investigating the interface between multilingual status and speech and language impairment. In this longitudinal study of ca. 5,000 children in Australia, they analyse whether differences in academic achievement in the majority language English persist or disappear over time and schooling between different groups of pupils.
The following four groups of children were identified and compared for the study: (1) English only with typical speech and language development, (2) multilingual with typical speech and language development, (3) English only with speech and language concern and (4) multilinguals with speech and language concern.
Multilingual status was established by enquiring whether the child speaks or hears a language other than English at home. Speech and language impairment was determined by parent-reported concern about their child’s expressive and receptive speech. Language competencies and academic outcomes were measured at three points in time using different methods: English vocabulary at the ages of 4-5 (before school), academic abilities in literacy and numeracy at the ages of 6-7 and 8-9 years.
The authors showed that, among the 4-5 age cohort, multilingual children (with typical speech and language concern) performed more poorly on measures of English vocabulary than their English-only peers (with typical speech and language development). However, there was no difference between these groups in academic outcomes at ages 6-7 or 8-9 – at which points, all children were attending school. Academic outcomes at those points appeared to relate more to the presence (or not) of a reported language impairment at age 4-5, and not to multilingual status. Overall, the results show that while differences in the majority language English between monolinguals and multilinguals still existed at ages 4-5, this gap had closed by ages of 6-7 and 8-9.
The reasons for these improvements may be that the multilingual children had time to continue their English language acquisition, and they may have received targeted services to support their English.
– Antje Hansen
McLeod, S., Harrison, L., Whiteford, C. & Walker, S. (2016). Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes at school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 34, 53-66.