Language development

I’m not an expert on language, and certainly not on bilingualism. Sofi is far more qualified than me to talk about this. However, I have some observations on how Antony’s language skills are developing and how I think that it works in his little brain.

There isn’t an awful lot of literature about bilingualism in autistic children. What there is shows what you might expect: it tends to vary. Studies on bilingualism in general tend to show that as long as the child is immersed in both languages, there’s no reason why they should suffer a language delay (though, like all children, some bilingual children do have delayed language).

One of the first signs with Antony that there might be something different going on was that he didn’t hit many of his communication and speech milestones. He was late pointing at things, late with his first words, etc. He used a lot of babble instead of real words. So when he actually started forming syllables (‘da’, ‘ma’, etc.) it was a relief for us. Unfortunately his communication development has been a slow and sometimes frustrating process.

He has a lot of vocabulary. He’s always been good at identifying objects, animals, people. He’s particularly good at remembering names. I’m pretty sure that he understands what we’re saying most of the time. Most vocabulary he has in English he also has in Spanish, and vice versa.

What I find really interesting is that when Antony learns vocabulary it tends to come in both languages at the same time. This is particularly obvious when it comes to abstract concepts. An example:

Every day when I pick up Antony from school we walk home. As part of that routine in an attempt to help him communicate, I ask him certain things about his day. These are questions like: “Did you have a nice day at school?” and the response is usually “Nice time at nursery”. These are phrases that Antony has learnt rote and that he tends to fall back on. I also ask what he’s done during the day and I’ll sometimes get one-word answers like “glueing”, “painting”, “slide”, etc. So to try to elaborate I go further: “Did you play out today?”. Usually I just get a “ye” answer or silence. But earlier this week, out of nowhere, Antony answered “not play outside today”. Mind blown. Where did that come from?!

This abstract concept that Antony had just switched on (being able to say what he hasn’t done rather than what he has) played on my mind until I got home. I wanted to see if it was available in Spanish too. So, arriving home, I asked Sofi to ask him if he had played outside. I phrased my question so that she wouldn’t get where I was going — it’s really easy sometimes to give Antony prompts and not allow him to work it out for himself. So, she asked something along the lines of “Antony, jugó afuera?” [my apologies to Sofi if I got that wrong!]. He answered “no jugó afuera”.

Now, he still hasn’t got the hang of his tenses yet so tends to just repeat the tense as per the question, but wow! he applied the same concept of not having done something. This is new and it happened in both languages at exactly the same time!

The way I like to think of this is that rather than having one language centre in his brain like monolingual children, Antony has formed a more complex structure. He effectively has two ‘bins’ – one for English vocabulary and grammar and one for Spanish. On top of that, he has an abstract concept processor which deals with things like “not having done something” in a language agnostic way. His clever little brain code switches to the appropriate language / bin, picks out the grammatical construct and vocabulary for that language and then drops out a fully formed sentence. To me this makes a lot of sense. It also makes sense that it’s this abstract concept processor that Antony’s brain has trouble with, and that’s where his communication delays are. It must be incredibly frustrating to understand what you’ve been asked but have no way of framing a response.

I wish we could get inside his head to know what he’s thinking…

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