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Research finds bilingual children master English better than most


“Learning about what individuals with hearing loss experience and understanding the issues and cultural differences would promote mutual understanding,” said Ferenc Bunta, associate professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders. | Courtesy of Ferenc Bunta

Mastering the English language may be easier for some than others, new research finds.

University of Houston’s Ferenc Bunta, associate professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders, collaborated with the Center for Hearing and Speech, he examined the language skills of 100 bilingual children, some bilingual with hearing loss, some bilingual with normal hearing and some monolingual English-speaking children.

Many use cochlear implants between 3 and 10 years old.

After testing them in English and comparing their test results with those of children who only understood English, Bunta’s research team found an unexpected result: Many bilingual children scored better than bilingual children with hearing loss who use English support only.

“One of the challenges is to overcome the lack of information and to discourage the spread of misinformation,” Bunta said. “There are a limited number of studies involving bilingual children with hearing loss that use cochlear implants, so there is a considerable knowledge gap that needs urgent attention.”

Bunta said past health-care professionals asserted that bilingualism is harmful as it can cause a hearing-impaired child to struggle in learning more than one language at the same time.

The children, then, were advised to only converse in English for a long time. This prevented many parents from having proper conversations with their children due to language barriers.

“Recent evidence suggests that using more language at home — even if it is not English — yields better results for both English and the home language than limiting language use. In other words, using more languages is better than using less, whatever that language may be,” Bunta said.

Bunta said a lot of experts in the field have misguided bilingual parents, who felt more comfortable speaking in their local language than in English, into refraining from conversing with their children in their native languages. This damages the current language situation for the child and endangers future language acquisition.

When children are detected with hearing deprivation, they will be in contact with clinicians and experts for assistance. Many children have cochlear implants, devices that provide them with a sense of sound, surgically inserted into their ears.

“Research has shown that children with hearing loss can reach their full potential in listening, speaking and reading skills. The results have already changed how other professionals view bilingualism in children with hearing loss”, said alumna Amy Cantu, director of speech therapy services at Center for Hearing and Speech.

She was also part of the research team.

Cantu said that hearing-impaired children need appropriate therapy from an early age. Their parents sometimes have a hard time finding the right people with the proper qualifications.

Cantu said that families that were prevented from speaking “the language of the heart” had more problems communicating with their children than those who were allowed to do so.

“Imagine, for example, that a clinician tells a Spanish-speaking parent to use only English with their child,” said Elizabeth Goodin-Mayeda, associate professor of Spanish linguistics, who also assisted Bunta in his research. “If that parent does not speak much English, suddenly they are going to speak to their child less, because they cannot produce English with the same richness of vocabulary and grammatical variation as they can in Spanish.”

For Cantu, empathy and understanding are key.

“Providing all children — bilingual or monolingual, with and without hearing loss — with the support and opportunities to succeed and reach their full potential is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do for our society and for humanity,” Bunta said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that bilingual children outperformed monolingual children when testing language skills.

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