Bilingualism and autism [Transcript]

August 15, 2023

00:00:15 – 00:03:56
Sharon: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. A mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about bilingualism and autism. Researcher Philippe Prévost tells us about the latest research on the language development of autistic children growing up with more than one language. Arquette said of the week is the 30 year old Gema, who grew up in an Ecuadorian family in New York. She tells us about navigating monolingual spaces as a bilingual how her heritage language Spanish helped her tell a very personal story and what being bilingual means to her. And once again, I’ll share another Kletsheads quick and easy. A concrete tip you can put into practice straight away to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family clinic or class. Keep listening to find out more. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 100 children have autism. Whilst exact numbers can vary depending on who’s reporting them, where in the world you live and how autism is defined, this developmental disability is certainly not uncommon. In fact, in many places the number of people living with autism is increasing. Autism is a spectrum, which means that it’s different for everybody. In this sense, it’s very much like bilingualism, as we’ve spoken about on the podcast many times before. Bilingualism is also characterized by variation. Some children hear the same language from both parents. Others hear two languages from one parent and a third from the other. Some children know how to read and write in all their languages. Others don’t. Some children get to visit family and friends regularly where they can practice their heritage language, whereas for others, this is impossible, as we’ll hear from today’s guest. All this variation can make doing research on the language development of autistic children growing up bilingually very challenging. So I’m afraid you’re going to hear many times in this episode that we simply don’t know the answer to some questions. We will, however, try to focus on what we do know and on answering some of the many questions parents, teachers and clinicians might have when it comes to bilingualism and autism. Autism affects how people relate to others, how they make sense of the world around them and how they communicate. And it’s likely these problems with communication that raise questions about bilingualism in autistic children. Should you raise an autistic child with more than one language? Can autistic children who don’t speak very much or who don’t speak at all become bilingual? What effect does being autistic have on a child’s language development, and is this any different for bilingual children? I’m going to put all of these questions and more to Felipe Prevo, professor of linguistics at the University of Tours in France and one of the few researchers working on this topic. Our conversation took place online as usual. And at that very moment, Storm Polly was passing over the Netherlands, which means that you might hear rain drumming away on the window above me in the background. I started by asking Philippe what exactly autism is and what causes it. 00:03:56 – 00:06:26
Philippe: Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. A neurodevelopmental disorder is a disorder that affects the development of the brain. And this can lead to greater or lesser difficulties in one or more cerebral functions such as language, which is what we’re going to be talking about today. Also, your senses, your emotions, etcetera. Um, autism itself, since we’re going to be talking about autism, is diagnosed on the observation of two important so-called dimensions. One is persistent deficits in social interaction and communication. So, for example, difficulties sharing interests with others or atypical eye contacts, atypical body language. And the second dimension is restricted repetitive patterns of behavior and also restricted interests and activities. So, for example, an autistic person may have stereotyped speech or echolalia also, which is, you know, repeating words or phrases or sentences, sometimes repeating the lyrics of songs. It could be also repetitive motor movements or repetitive use of objects. And so these are the two dimensions of autism. And in order for you or for the child to receive a diagnosis of autism, you have to show these two dimensions. And obviously, what I just told you can occur in varying degrees of severity or intensity, and they can have greater or lesser impact on everyday life. So you can have people who can go through normal school, can have normal sort of education, and you have others on the other hand that need to be helped on on a daily basis. And families actually cannot do it by themselves and need to have services to to do the job for them, so to speak.

00:06:26 – 00:06:30
Sharon: Yeah, So, so that’s what it is and what causes it?

00:06:30 – 00:08:09
Philippe: What causes autism? Big question, of course. Well, we know that genetics plays an important role in in in autism. And this can take the form of a abnormalities on some chromosomes, changes in some genes or single genes. And you can see the involvement of genetics when you look at twin studies in autism. So especially when you look at identical twins, so twins that share most of their DNA and their genes, if one twin turns out to have autism, then the chance for the other twin to also be autistic is extremely high. So around 90%. And in contrast, if the twins are non-identical so if they only share maybe part of their DNA, then the chances of a twin being autistic if the other one is autistic is much lower. According to some studies, the chances are between 25 to 40%. So genetics is involved. But we also know that there are some risk factors of autism that are linked to the environment. Right? So, for example, use of medication during pregnancy, so things like antidepressants and anti-epileptics exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may be related to later development of of autism. Prematurity also is a risk factor.

00:08:10 – 00:08:21
Sharon: And just to be clear that, you know, that doesn’t mean premature baby is going to become autistic. Right? It’s it just means you’re more likely than a non a kid that’s goes full term. 00:08:21 – 00:09:27
Philippe: You are absolutely right. Thank you very much for making this clear. Yes. This is what we call risk factors, risk factors that has to do just with saying that it is more likely than. But it doesn’t mean with certainty at all that you are going to become that, right? Yes. One thing that is very interesting, I mean, very promising area of research is what we call epigenetics. And that’s the the effect that the environment can have on genes. Right. And I think that. It’s very interesting because it brings together the risk factors linked to the environment and what we know about genetics in in autism. So there’s much to be done in that area. And it’s fascinating. Maybe one thing, one last thing that I would like to make clear. There is no scientific evidence suggesting that autism is related to vaccination. Yeah.

00:09:27 – 00:09:59
Sharon: Yeah. Good point. Okay. So one of the key characteristics of autism is these difficulties with communication, right? So we’ll get to bilingualism soon, but let’s just talk more, more generally. So focusing on what we know about language development in autistic children who are learning one language because there’s obviously more work on that. Um, so to what extent does the language development differ for autistic children than for children without autism? So either neurotypical children or with other neurotypical disorders?

00:09:59 – 00:12:38
Philippe: Yes. Well, as you said before, in fact, the key word about autism in general, but also about language abilities in children with autism is variability. Yeah. And in fact, autistic individuals, an autistic children, they differ as to which areas of language are affected and to what degree they are affected. Maybe I should start by saying that one of the language domains that is most affected in autism is what we call pragmatics. Maybe a broad definition could be use of language in context or in everyday life. Yeah. Um, but maybe I should give you an example to make it more real, so to speak. Yeah. Okay. So imagine that you have a conversation with someone. Obviously there’s a lot of information that is transmitted to the other person without being explicitly expressed, you know, your body language and also some some expressions, the way you prosody, the way you talk, intonation, etcetera. So let me give you a concrete example. Imagine you ask someone, hey, have you met my parents? And the other person answers, Well, I’ve met your mother, You understand? Or you can infer from that that indeed the mother has been met, but the person hasn’t hasn’t met your father. And the idea is that if the person had met the father, that person would have said it. Okay. Yes, I have met them. Right? Yeah. Instead, the person says, Well, I’ve met your mother and you think, okay, so he has or she has only met the mother. This implicit information that we can guess as neurotypical says, that maybe people with autism have difficulties with with everything that is implicit, knowing exactly what we mean. This is quite this is quite a challenge for them. So anything that is non-literal. So, yes, humor, irony. They also may have difficulties with managing a conversation in terms of knowing when it’s your turn to speak. Also, the fact that you and I know and it’s quite amazing actually, that we should know that we know that when we talk to each other, when it’s your turn to speak, you should follow up on the same topic. You’re not going to change the topic of the conversation. Yeah.

00:12:38 – 00:12:55
Sharon: And so that’s that’s a key characteristic of language development, at least in varying degrees of autistic people, autistic children. Are there other areas where autistic children might experience problems or challenges?

00:12:55 – 00:15:10
Philippe: Yeah, yeah, yeah, completely. What we know is that a number of autistic individuals have also what we call language impairment. This is not pragmatics. This corresponds to difficulties with, for example, putting words together to form sentences. So what we call syntax. Yeah. Putting sounds together to form syllables, what we call phonology. We don’t know how many children in fact are impacted by that. I mean, some studies go as far as saying that half of autistic children that have language also have language impairment, but we don’t know. It could be it could be less than that. But what we do know is that language impairment affects what we call complexity. So the more a sentence or a syllable is complex, the more difficulties children with language impairment will have. For example, if you put a sentence inside another sentence, so what we call a. An embedded clause. You increase complexity. So you could say, for example, the doctor saw a patient today. So that’s a pretty simple sentence. But you can make it more complex by adding something else. You could say. My friend knows that the doctor saw a patient today and all of a sudden the sentence, of course, is longer. But you can see that the clause is inserted into another clause and that makes the sentence more complex. I can give you an example with syllables if you want. So a syllable includes a vowel and you can include also one or more consonants, and some syllables are more complex than others. So if I give you the syllable car where you have a consonant and a vowel. Ah, this is less complex than, for example, car, where you have two consonants or cap where you have two consonants. Okay, Kids with autism and language impairment will have difficulties with complex syllables and with complex sentences as well.

00:15:11 – 00:16:05
Sharon: Yeah. And so some of the things you’ve mentioned are also things that we know. You know that, for example, the last thing that you mentioned about, you know, complexity of the sounds. We also know that that’s something developmentally, right? Children, neurotypical, monolingual and bilingual children also reduce the complexity of the sounds that they’re saying. Right? So they might say car instead of car. If you want to know more about language impairment or developmental language disorder, listen to episode three of the first season of Flatheads. There we answer the question How do you know if a bilingual child has a language delay? You’ll find the link in the show notes. So we’ve spoken about then, you know, the characteristics of language development in autistic children. How might autism affect or potentially affects bilingual language development?

00:16:05 – 00:18:26
Philippe: We know of cases that are just exceptional. So we know that some autistic children or let’s say individual managed to develop more than one language and maybe one. One of the most famous cases is someone called Christopher, who’s been studied in the 1990s. So this is a person who has autism and he has a very special talent, which is learning languages. And so he’s able to understand. He’s able to speak and read and write more than 20 languages or about 20 languages. But what’s interesting in his case is that he enjoyed learning languages for the sake of learning them. He was interested in the linguistic systems. He was interested in the grammar rules. He was interested in translation. So it shows that, yes, autistic individuals may be able to learn more than one language, but then they may not be interested in learning this these languages for communication, mainly because they didn’t learn these languages through social interactions. In the case of Christopher, he learned these languages from books. We have also knowledge of other cases of children learning a second language through watching television and videos on social media. So autistic children learning these languages and even preferring speaking these languages at home with their parents, even though the parents don’t speak the language. Some people have put the idea that maybe some autistic children are able to, in fact, focus so much on the details. In fact, their interest is going to be language. They are very much interested in cracking the system, so to speak, and their attention to details allow them to make, you know, sort of figuring out the rules of the language, how the words are pronounced. And this is this is quite this is quite fascinating, the fact that they can figure out the language just by exposure to TV and and videos. This is something that needs to be explained.

00:18:27 – 00:18:42
Sharon: We’re going to leave our conversation with Felipe now to listen to another heads quick and easy concrete tip you can put into practice straight away to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.

00:18:42 – 00:18:45
Sharon: Kletsheads Quick & Easy.

00:18:45 – 00:19:53
Sharon: Raising teaching or treating a bilingual child is usually not something you do alone. Ideally, you do it as a team, as a parent with your partner and wider family, as a professional, with your colleagues or with the child’s parents, and in many cases also with the child to. But sometimes not everyone is on the same page. Maybe your partner thinks differently about bilingual parenting than you do, or your school board has a different take on how best to educate bilingual students. Or maybe the parents of a bilingual child in your clinic see things differently from you. These are topics we often prefer to avoid rather than discuss. But that conversation is necessary if we want to make a success of the bilingualism for the children in our midst. So our heads quick and easy for today is to have that conversation. Whether it’s your partner, your parents or friends, your colleague or your child. Talk to them about the one topic that’s been bothering you for ages and make sure you can move forward together.

00:19:53 – 00:19:53
Sharon: Kletsheads Quick & Easy.

00:19:58 – 00:20:30
Sharon: Philippe has told us how some autistic children and adults can be exceptional language learners and in this sense, the language development of autistic children, or at least some autistic children, may be different from that of neurotypical children. But what about autistic children who do not fall into this category? If you’re raising a bilingual child and your child receives an autism diagnosis, what does this mean for their bilingualism? I asked Philippe what we know about the language development of autistic children growing up bilingually.

00:20:30 – 00:24:07
Philippe: There are interesting studies that compare bilingual children with autism to monolingual children with autism. And generally these studies. Well, they tend to to conclude that the two groups of children do not differ. In other words, that the language of kids with. With autism that grow up in a bilingual context is not affected with respect to monolinguals. So, for example, people have studied so-called milestones of language development. So these are sort of different phases that we have well identified throughout throughout the years. So for example, in neurotypicals, you know, the age of first word, generally right before the age of one or the age of first sentence, about the age of two or a little before. So when you look at autistic children, monolingual children with autism tend to have a delayed language emergence. So and actually, that’s one of the first reasons why families actually go and consult with a therapist, because they’re worried about the language of the of their children. And so in monolingual children with autism, we we observe, for example, the age of first word at age two instead of age one and the first sentence at age three instead of age two. So now when you compare bilingual children that have autism with monolingual children that have autism, well, what you see is that the milestones of the bilingual children are the same as the the ones of the monolingual. So there is no further delay in language development in the bilingual autistic children. So indeed, their first word will, like the monolinguals, appear at age two in on average. And yeah, and age three for the first phrases or first sentences. So there seems to be to be a yes, a lack of impact of bilingualism in the sense that bilingualism, you may think may delay the the emergence of language. This is not this is not the case. Okay. What we have also found. Bilingual children that have autism and also language impairment. When you look at the errors that these children make. So, for example, we mentioned earlier complex sentences, right? So, for example, saying car instead of car. Okay. So bilingual children that have autism and language impairment, when they make mistakes, they are pretty similar to the mistakes or errors that monolingual children with autism tend to make. So it’s not the case that they start making errors that are completely different and that that tells us something. That tells us that, okay, the fact of raising a child in a bilingual way does not exacerbate the type of the errors. Maybe there will be more errors, what we call quantity of errors, but at least the errors are not going to be different than the errors that that monolinguals make would need obviously to be proven by by other studies. It seems to be a very interesting, interesting result.

00:24:07 – 00:24:28
Sharon: I think that’s really important, right, because it shows to the extent that the language development of autistic children may differ from the language development of neurotypical children there, any differences so far at least, seem to be the same for whether the children are growing up with one language or whether they’re growing up with two.

00:24:28 – 00:24:40
Philippe: Some of the results are, I find, more solid than others. Definitely the ones on the milestones seem to be seems to be seem to be on the right, on the right track.

00:24:40 – 00:25:13
Sharon: And I think also just one other thing that cropped up in my mind when you were saying that, and I think that’s also important to say is, you know, because of all this individual variation, you know, we’re talking about all these different groups as though they’re very discrete groups, right? And that they all behave the same way. The monolingual children with autism, we know there’s a lot of variation. We should probably see this more of like a sliding scale for bilingualism. People in the research world think of that more these days as a continuum from being very bilingual to being not so bilingual.

00:25:13 – 00:27:00
Philippe: Yeah, you’re completely you’re absolutely right, Sharon. And this is why actually maybe I caution the your listeners a lot about, well, research, you know, we don’t know and everything. That’s because there are so many combinations of factors possible that. Whatever is found on a group or subgroup of individuals may only apply to that subgroup of individuals and depending also on the way they were tested and assessed. But. You know, you you need to include in your in your studies more children that may have language impairment, more children that are minimally verbal in order to see how this sort of continuum also of abilities plays out with respect to your continuum of language exposure and and bilingual bilingualism factors in general. What’s interesting is that when you look at bilingual children with autism and language impairment, it seems that the that exposure doesn’t play such a role, such an important role. So it seems that even though they are going to be exposed to the language, the fact that they have language impairment means that in fact they’re not going to benefit so much from the from the exposure. And we know that from from other disorders. So developmental language disorder, for example. Um. The fact of being exposed to more than to be to have more exposure is not going to. Help the child mean to the same extent, let’s say then then children or as children that that develop typically.

00:27:00 – 00:27:33
Sharon: Right. So, you know, there’s a lot that we don’t know, right? Because it’s really complex. It’s complex situation. And and this is an emerging field of research. And part of the complexity is that you’ve many autistic children also have a language impairments like developmental language disorder. And so it’s hard to disentangle, you know, when you look at their language development, what is reflecting the fact that they have autism and what reflects the fact that they have a language impairment? Is that a reasonable summary of of where we’re at?

00:27:33 – 00:29:04
Philippe: Sure. Yes. Um, this is this is a good summary indeed. I think that when you look at the studies that have been done that have appeared on the topic of bilingual language development in autism, few of them actually look at language impairment. And and to us, this is something that should be addressed because we know I mean, I told you the the prevalence of language impairment in autistic children. Some people say that 50 is as high as 50% of autistic children have language impairment. If it’s the same for bilingual children with autism, then we need to be able to factor in in the studies the fact that some of the children may have language impairments. So we have to find a way for this population to disentangle indeed difficulties that may be related to language impairment, but also to, for example, insufficient language exposure or, you know, insufficiently quantitative language exposure. Um, and then you factoring also, um, autism symptoms is the fact that being autistic sort of make it, um, make it a third factor, so to speak, in the, in the, in the language development of these children. Yeah.

00:29:04 – 00:29:24
Sharon: Other things that we definitely do not yet know from research on bilingualism and autism because sometimes it’s good to point that out too, right? Because, you know, people make, make claims about, well, anything and everything. And yet there’s scientific base for those claims is, you know, shaky at best.

00:29:24 – 00:32:02
Philippe: Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. It’s very important to to make it clear what we don’t know. And I’m afraid that in this particular topic, there are many things that we don’t know. So but let me give you an example. We talked about the factors that may impact on language development in bilingual contexts. So, for example, and things you’ve you’ve talked about in your podcast, I’m sure. So language exposure, quality of exposure, age of onset, the fact of, you know, learning, starting learning a language early or later, we don’t know so much the impact of those those factors on language development in bilingual children simply because they haven’t been really investigated. A lot of studies, for example, look at children that are simultaneous bilingual so that learn or that are exposed to the two languages from birth. There are not that many studies that look at children who are exposed to the second language later. So, for example, when when they go to school or to school, able to go to school. Yes. So it’s difficult to it’s difficult to tell. Yeah. Um, and as I said before about language impairment, so we don’t know really how this can be identified. And maybe the last thing that maybe one group or subgroup of children that we haven’t talked about yet, um, children that are called minimally verbal. So children who have, who have autism but somehow do not manage to develop language beyond a few words or phrases or echolalia. Um, we don’t know. First of all, we don’t know what they know about about language because they by definition their production of language is very reduced, very limited. And what we don’t know in addition to that is what happens to them or to their language or language development when they are exposed to another language on top of the home language have no idea. And research certainly has not much to say about this yet. Um, but it could be that, you know, they’re able to to get some comprehension. In at least of both languages or not. So I’m afraid that this awaits further. Further studies and further research.

00:32:02 – 00:32:34
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So plenty of research still to be done, but let’s, um, let’s try and give some answers to the parents and teachers and maybe clinicians who are listening. You do here. And I have also, you know, heard personally of parents of autistic children who are growing up in a bilingual situation, who have been told that they can better stop using the heritage language or the minority language with their child and switch to the majority language. So they’ll usually the language spoken at school. What should parents do when they get that kind of advice?

00:32:36 – 00:32:54
Philippe: Yes. Um, I mean, this is a very tough situation for any parents to to be in. And and actually, you know, this is I’m going I mean, obviously, we’re talking about autism, but this is not the only context in which bilingual contexts in which parents can hear this.

00:32:54 – 00:33:01
Sharon: No, no, of course. And we’ve spoken about that several times on the podcast. You know, parents being told, stop talking, speaking the language. Yeah.

00:33:01 – 00:34:34
Philippe: So my inclination would be to, you know, as as not sure this is always going to be possible, but I would say that parents should ignore these these this advice. Um, I know that we don’t know much about language development in bilingual children with autism, but in autism. Yes. Sorry. Yeah, but let’s consider the the consequences of a family. Um, you know, being told to, to ignore or to drop, um, the home language, for example. Yeah. Um, this will have tremendous consequences for the for the child. I mean, um, especially if the parents don’t have a fluent command of the majority language. How are they to communicate with their, with their, with their, with their autistic child? Um, how is the autistic child supposed to develop its own identity, its own cultural identity, linguistic identity? It’s it’s hard. How can we even communicate with the with his extended family, his how can he live in his within this community if if the family is told to drop to drop a language. So, um.

00:34:34 – 00:34:49
Sharon: Yeah, so so basically all the reasons why you shouldn’t drop a heritage language if you’re raising a child bilingually, your child is neurotypical. They also hold for if you’re raising a bilingual child and your child has autism.

00:34:50 – 00:35:37
Philippe: Exactly. I mean, the consequences for the for the well-being of the family of the child to me are, too, that this is this would be too much for the child and the family. There are too negative consequences. So if the concern of the clinician or the professional is that the child should get more exposure to the majority language, then maybe the family can try to multiply the contexts in which in which the child, the autistic child, is going to get access to the majority language through activities of different types. Um, but not by dropping the, the home language. Yeah. Um, yeah.

00:35:37 – 00:35:45
Sharon: So are there circumstances then under which you should not raise an autistic child bilingually?

00:35:47 – 00:35:54
Philippe: This is a tough one and I’m not sure I can give you a definite answer on this.

00:35:54 – 00:35:56
Sharon: What would you say if, you know, a parent asked you?

00:35:57 – 00:37:18
Philippe: I would. I would mean in relationship in relation to what we just said, dropping a language may have very negative consequences on the family, on the child. There could be some. Exceptional circumstances. Let’s say a combination of maybe the child being minimally verbal and having, for example, developmental intellectual disorder, um, combination of hurdles, so to speak. But even that, you know, this is just from the top of my head. I this is not based on any evidence that, that I could find in studies. So, so it’s difficult to. You know, my general, my general inclination would be to keep the the languages and especially the home language. Certainly, I’m afraid that I cannot think of all different circumstances. There may be some where indeed this is going to be this is going to be too much. But we have to be careful. You have to be careful. Dropping one language is one solution, but, you know, it has consequences, as we said.

00:37:18 – 00:37:42
Sharon: Yeah. And so, um, I think it’s important to make clear as well that if I understand you correctly, Felipe, there’s, there’s no evidence showing that raising an autistic child bilingually is going to exacerbate any issues that they might have relating to the autism. Is that right?

00:37:43 – 00:38:33
Philippe: Yes. I mean, that’s this is what the I mean, the literature the studies tend to say that. Yes, go ahead. Um, you know, bilingualism does not have any negative effect on language development in children with autism. This may be true, but we need more research to confirm this. Right. In the meantime, what do we do? Right. What do we do with the home language, especially based on what we know in other disorders, in other situations? Maybe keeping the home language is is not a bad idea. And dropping the home language, as we said. Yeah. Can lead to further issues. Yeah. May be quite severe.

00:38:33 – 00:38:40
Sharon: Yeah. And the question is whether it actually is a solution to what whatever the problem is that is supposed to be solving. Right.

00:38:40 – 00:39:20
Philippe: Um, no, exactly. And one thing actually that we could say, I mean, children with autism have difficulties with communication and with social interaction. So there are the risk of them. The risk for them to be isolated is extremely high. We know that isolation, social isolation is something that many, many individuals with autism feel. So imagine what is what’s going to happen if in your in your own family, you’re going to drop the home language. This will lead to even more isolation. Right. And I’m not sure this is what we want. Yeah, right. Yeah.

00:39:21 – 00:39:30
Sharon: Before we wrap up our conversation with Philippe, it’s time to hear from our Kletzky of the Week. Let’s head over to week.

00:39:35 – 00:39:42
Gema: My name is Gema. I am 30 years old. I live in Queens, New York, and I speak English and Spanish.

00:39:42 – 00:39:53
Sharon: Welcome, Gema. You’re our first guest from New York. So you were raised bilingually. Can you tell me about how you heard your two different languages when growing up?

00:39:53 – 00:40:23
Gema: Yes. So I was raised in Queens, New York, and I was raised by my Ecuadorian family. And since I’m first generation, they had a really hard time grasping the English language. So they refused to assimilate. And I had no choice but to learn Spanish. Otherwise I could have not ever communicated with them. Now I spoke in Spanish at home, and then during the day when I began school, I would learn English. So simultaneously I feel that in my existence I never was not bilingual. Yeah.

00:40:23 – 00:40:26
Sharon: Yeah. Okay, so when when when did you first hear English then?

00:40:27 – 00:40:33
Gema: When I was five years old. Okay. Prior to that, I had only conceptualized reality in Spanish. Uh huh.

00:40:33 – 00:40:40
Sharon: And. And now. Now that you’re a grown up, how do you use your two languages?

00:40:41 – 00:41:11
Gema: Every single day. Obviously when I communicate with my partner, which is monolingual, so only in English, but then with my extended family, I speak with them in Spanish. My friends, I have used Spanish since I began working and my professional career with music. I just I’m consistently interacting with the two languages or in Spanish. There’s a nice phrase that says Bien Entre dos Mundos to live between both worlds.

00:41:11 – 00:41:16
Sharon: Uh huh. So do you feel you live between both worlds or in both worlds?

00:41:16 – 00:41:19
Gema: You know what? You’re right. I’m definitely in both worlds. Yeah?

00:41:19 – 00:41:23
Sharon: Yeah. And what does it mean to you, then, to be bilingual?

00:41:23 – 00:41:55
Gema: So I would say that being bilingual to me just, you know, really encompasses the both cultures that I grew up in, you know, growing up, having access to my Ecuadorian culture and then growing up here also, you know, loving American culture itself. So it means embracing these two cultures and embracing the innovation that both of them have created, whether it’s, you know, through the arts or literature. So I would say that, you know, it means living within both of those worlds.

00:41:55 – 00:42:03
Sharon: Yeah, Yeah. And you said you use Spanish also in your professional life. So what what do you do?

00:42:03 – 00:42:36
Gema: Well, I am an aspiring translator, so I definitely use it a lot. Right now. I have this little nonprofit group that I co-founded with my professor and some other students at John Jay. It’s called Traducciones Contra el Racismo or Translations Against Racism in English and translate content on social media to spread anti-racist messages. So Spanish speaking communities would be able to understand more of the nuances of racism. So that is a way that I utilize my bilingual.

00:42:37 – 00:42:53
Sharon: Oh, cool. You said you you use both languages, both, you know, every day. Do you feel a particular affinity to one language or is there one that you prefer to speak most or is it really for you? Not much of a difference or context dependent, I guess.

00:42:54 – 00:43:30
Gema: So I would say that I do have an affinity more for English, and I believe it’s English because I spent so much of my waking hours, you know, whether it was in school, university and everything was in English. And even though I did acquire Spanish at home, it was interesting that over two decades I didn’t really write it or read it. I just spoke it. But then, until I began to major in translation is when I actually studied it academically. So I only have, I would say just a few years really immersed in Spanish in that way.

00:43:31 – 00:43:35
Sharon: And so how did you learn to read and write in Spanish then?

00:43:36 – 00:43:53
Gema: Basically when I went to the university, obviously I knew, you know, I had a really good grasp of it. But when I decided to study at the university, that’s when I had a more deeper understanding and I began to read it more and was more exposed to it, I would say, on a more academic level.

00:43:54 – 00:44:11
Sharon: And, um, looking back then now, do you feel like, you know, you wish you’d learned to read and write earlier or do you think, well, you know, I had the advantage when I went to university. I could always speak already speak Spanish so well, then it made it so much easier for me to learn how to read and write.

00:44:12 – 00:44:26
Gema: Um, I would say that I wish I knew it earlier. Then I think it would have been more advantageous at an earlier age because then I probably would have had a stronger grasp on it. Now, obviously you’re never done learning a language.

00:44:28 – 00:44:45
Gema: But honestly, I wish that I would have picked it up sooner just so because I would have. Been able to have more in-depth conversations with more loved ones that I feel like when I was younger, I just I didn’t because I was a little limited in the in my proficiency in Spanish.

00:44:45 – 00:44:48
Sharon: So that’s also spoken Spanish then as well.

00:44:48 – 00:44:58
Gema: Or when I was much younger, there were so many words that, you know, I can obviously pronounce today that back then I had just such a difficulty because it wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.

00:44:59 – 00:45:08
Sharon: Do you hink that’s something that’s just part and parcel of growing up, no matter what language you you use and that you get to know more complicated words as you get older?

00:45:08 – 00:45:36
Gema: Yeah, I mean, it also I think it depends on, you know, how much someone is reading right in said language and how much there is to it during the day. And as you know, as a child and even as an adult, I was mostly exposed to English. You know, even though at home and with my friends, I did use Spanish. That is a limited amount of time compared to existing in the United States and doing everything in English television, you know, schoolwork, media, everything, just being consumed in that language.

00:45:37 – 00:45:49
Sharon: And what about communicating with your Ecuadorian family now? Which language do you use? To what extent do you only use Spanish Because you said you you you grew up only only speaking Spanish with them. But has that changed over time? 00:45:49 – 00:45:55
Gema: No, they they still don’t really know English. So mostly in Spanish. Only in Spanish, actually.

00:45:55 – 00:45:59
Sharon: Yeah. And, um do you have children yourself?

00:45:59 – 00:46:01
Gema: No, I don’t have children.

00:46:01 – 00:46:05
Sharon: If you were to have them, have you thought about what language you might use to speak to them in?

00:46:06 – 00:46:23
Gema: Both English and Spanish? I would not want them to be monolingual. I think that, you know, monolingual also made limits their experiences of the world rather than knowing two languages and they’d be able to have more exposure to human innovation. 00:46:24 – 00:46:41
Sharon: Tell me a bit more about your experiences as a what we would call in the research literature, heritage language. Speaker Right. Somebody who grew up speaking a heritage language, Spanish in your case. And then you went and went to university and then did you study Spanish or.

00:46:41 – 00:46:44
Gema: I did. I studied Spanish translation and interpretation.

00:46:45 – 00:47:03
Sharon: So how is that then? Because I’m sure many parents who are listening will be curious to hear what the experiences of somebody who, you know, essentially could be their kid. And I don’t know however many years, um, how it is then to go and, you know, study that the language that you grew up with and but weren’t schooled in until then

00:47:03 – 00:47:51
Gema: Yeah, well, it was a very difficult experience because, you know, I have never done that before. So there was a lot to learn. And I think what was the most difficult is the fact that I studied translation. It’s not just like studying the language itself, but also just conveying, um, you know, a text from English to Spanish and making sure that I transferred the meaning, the tone of the text and its cultural, you know, nuances that it contained. So it was a difficult experience. But I honestly do think that if a person decides to be, you know, bilingual or even trilingual, translation would be one of the methods that would, I would say, make it easier to acquire language.

00:47:51 – 00:47:53
Sharon: Do you feel like it’s actually helped?

00:47:53 – 00:48:15
Gema: Yes, it definitely did. Yeah. Especially interpretation because translation is verbal and interpretation is oral. So when you are interpreting you, you know, it’s so much that you’re doing cognitively, you’re receiving the information in one language and then you have to say it out in another language and make sure that it makes sense and that you’re conveying the information that was processed.

00:48:16 – 00:48:40
Sharon: Yeah, it’s pretty high pressure, right? I remember. So I studied French and German in the UK where I grew up. And um, I remember the interpretation classes where our teacher would say something in French and then suddenly say somebody’s name and you had to interpret it and you’re always like, Oh, no, not me, not me. It, it, it’s just really, uh, it’s just so fast paced.

00:48:40 – 00:48:55
Gema: It puts you on the spot, right, to see how much of the language because sometimes, sometimes you forget a word in one language. So then when you’re interpreting, you might just have to find a way to describe that idea. If you don’t know the equivalent right away.

00:48:56 – 00:49:07
Sharon: Yeah, well, that happens. I don’t know about you, but that happens to me quite a lot. Forgetting a word in certainly in English, I sometimes I find it more easy to speak Dutch than I do English. To be honest.

00:49:08 – 00:49:14
Gema: With me, sometimes I’ll just. I mean, I imagine it’s happened to you, too. I’ll just forget the word in both languages.

00:49:14 – 00:49:25
Sharon: Oh, yeah, that happens too. Um, so you were telling me just before we started the recording about you’d done some writing in Spanish whilst you were at university. Do you want to tell us a bit about that, about your experience?

00:49:25 – 00:50:38
Gema: Yes, of course. So I wrote an essay a few years ago. Basically, the essay is about the evolution of my coming out story. Coming. To my parents the evolution of accepting me and where they are today and where I am with what happened. So I wrote this essay in Spanish and I submitted it, you know, to my professor for one of my finals. And they were he was really impressed. And he had suggested that I submitted it to a contest. There was a writing contest at John Jay for the English Department. And they have this journal that’s called John Jay’s Finest. My professor told me that she’s going to submit my essay in Spanish, that that would be the first time that an essay would be published in Spanish in that English journal, but also translated and I won. And my essay was the first one published in Spanish. And I would not be able to have done that without being bilingual, without knowing Spanish and having lived those experiences. Because my experiences with what happened also derived from me growing up in a South American South American household and then speaking that language and every cultural nuances that came with that.

00:50:39 – 00:50:50
Sharon: To what extent did did being able to write that story in in Spanish change or affect or influence what the what the story actually was? Do you know what I mean?

00:50:50 – 00:51:27
Gema: Honestly, now that I think about it right now, there was no other way but to write it in Spanish, because that was my lived experience at home and being exposed to, you know, prejudices, right. Growing up that are so prevalent in that culture. So there was no other way to actually write it. But within that language and using the exact words that I heard, especially, you know, because when I came out, I was in Ecuador and in the essay I describe, you know, where I am, I describe, you know, the origin of where my family is from. So I feel that because I wrote it in Spanish, it made it even more powerful.

00:51:28 – 00:51:32
Sharon: Is it accessible, the story online?

00:51:32 – 00:51:36
Gema: You can just, I guess Google John Jay’s is 2022.

00:51:36 – 00:51:50
Sharon: We can put a we can we can put a link in the show notes. If people are interested and want to read it. You hear different stories about the status of Spanish in the US. What is your experience been like as a speaker of Spanish?

00:51:50 – 00:52:30
Gema: Well, you know, I think growing up where I did, I grew up in a really small neighborhood where it was really, you know, a lot of Latinos. So a lot of people spoke Spanish in school. You know, it was never really present. I only really was exposed to it at the university. But I do see that right now it is more encouraging to, you know, have that bilingual education, which I think is great. It definitely was something that I did not see growing up. And I think as I did grow up, I did see there was more prejudices against, you know, speaking Spanish, which, you know, seems a little ludicrous to me since it is the second most spoken language in the world.

00:52:30 – 00:52:39
Sharon: So were you allowed to speak Spanish at school or I mean, or was it just an unspoken rule or was it actually a rule that you weren’t allowed to speak Spanish?

00:52:39 – 00:53:02
Gema: It was, I would say, a more unspoken rule. You would just know not to do that. You would know that there would be a reaction. You know, I think as a person that grew up here, I knew that there are certain spaces where I would, you know, not speak Spanish, especially, you know, living even though I live in the city, if I go to certain rural places, right, of New York, I would not speak Spanish.

00:53:03 – 00:53:21
Sharon: What kind of effect do you think it would have had if it hadn’t have been the case? Right. If you were able to, for example, use your Spanish to discuss with your classmates the answer to a question or use Spanish to chat to people or, I don’t know, use Spanish when learning French or something?

00:53:22 – 00:54:19
Gema: I think if I did not have that limitation, I would have been able to know different parts of my culture, know different individuals and just would have probably had different access to different resources for some reason. The one thing that keeps coming to my mind is if I was, you know, not put the limitation on me, I think my family would have had access to more resources, more resources as a child, since I was the only one that spoke English in that household, I was expected to be the interpreter and translator. And, you know, I was like 9 or 10 years old reading these really complex, you know, government documents that I did not have the capability to, you know, translate. And I think it would have made my life much easier. And I definitely would have felt more comfortable because I think because I knew this language, I felt like an outcast for a really long time.

00:54:19 – 00:54:32
Sharon: Well, that’s interesting. I think we’re going to leave it there. Thank you ever so much for spending some time with us today from New York. It’s been really interesting to hear about your experiences growing up with Spanish and English.

00:54:32 – 00:54:35
Gema: Oh, thank you for having. It’s been a pleasure.

00:54:42 – 00:55:06
Sharon: One final question, and that’s about, um, any kind of therapy, for example, speech and language therapy that, um, some autistic children might need. Um, to the extent that they have a choice, which language can clinicians best use during therapy within bilingual autistic child?

00:55:07 – 00:55:20
Philippe: Okay. Okay. So get from your question that you’re talking about a situation where there’s actually a choice right in the in the language of therapy, because this is not.

00:55:20 – 00:55:24
Sharon: Yeah, maybe it’s an unrealistic question, to be honest.

00:55:25 – 00:57:29
Philippe: Um, no, because we so we do a lot of work, a lot of collaboration with countries like Lebanon, so countries that are by definition bilingual. And there the, the recommendations are that therapy should address the all the languages of the child, let’s say the two languages of the child. Right. And this is possible in countries like that because. Most, if not all, speech language therapists will speak the two languages. Right. But even in those situations, it’s not really clear. So. You’ve probably talked in your podcast about the fact that even though a child has more than one language, there may be one language that is stronger than the other or more dominant. Right. So even in bilingual countries, speech and language therapists sometimes detect a language which is stronger in a child and may decide, in fact, to restrict therapy to that strong language. Right. So this is a matter of defining also defining what is strong and weaker in terms of your of your languages. But practices may differ even in those even in those countries and as two monolingual countries like France. Well, I mean. Speech and language therapists will speak French, and there’s no way that you can find or it’s going to be very difficult to find speech and language therapists that speak, that may speak the other language of the of the child. So you may find speech and language therapists that speak English, but they may not speak Turkish, Urdu or any other.

00:57:29 – 00:58:18
Philippe: Whatever the language that you can find in the country. So they will be restricted to to providing therapy to to the to the to the children in in French and actually maybe. This is where the advice that sometimes some families hear from therapists come from. The fact that they deliver therapy in one language, they may think that, well, then it’s best to for the child to only hear that language, including at home, right? To multiply exposure. So with the idea of maybe boosting the language skills of these children. But as we said, this this can be a little bit. A little bit complicated. Yeah. Yeah.

00:58:18 – 00:58:57
Sharon: And you probably try and find other sources of that language to boost the language development because, you know, it makes sense, right? If that’s the language that they’re having therapy in and the therapy is needed for a purpose. So it does make sense. But no reason to drop drop the other language. I think that’s maybe a good, uh, a good place to finish then. So thank you, Philippe, for sharing what we do know and telling us more about what we don’t know and hopefully what we will know soon. Once you and your colleagues have, uh, completed some more research.

00:58:57 – 00:59:29
Philippe: Well, thank you, Sharon. I should say that we are continuing doing research on this topic. This is extremely important. We do this with colleagues in other countries and we are very much interested. And we need to we need to find answers. Yeah. For research to understand how language works, how bilingualism works, but also to help clinicians, professionals and families to make the best informed decisions about language practice.

00:59:29 – 01:01:48
Sharon: Thanks to Philippe for sharing his insights from the research on bilingualism and autism. In today’s episode, we learned that it’s perfectly possible for autistic children to grow up bilingually. And as for neurotypical children, it’s important to think about the consequences of deciding to drop a language. As always, whatever choice you make as a parent is entirely up to you. What we care about here at Kletsgeads is that the choices you make are informed ones. As Philippe noted several times during our conversation, much more research is needed. This research should include the bilingual families with autistic children examining not only their language skills, but also how language is used. Another important topic is what it means for children’s identity to be both bilingual and autistic. If you want to hear more on the topic of bilingualism and autism, including the lived experience of an autistic person who grew up bilingually, then I recommend the episode of the Dutch Language Such talk podcast on this very topic. The link is in the show notes. We’ll be back in a month with an episode on complementary schools or heritage language education, as it’s called in some parts of the world. What effect does attending these schools have on children’s language development and their cultural identity? What other benefits are there and other benefits for parents as well as children. Researcher Layal Hussein will give us the answers. Until then, if you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favorite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app, and if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is at Kletsheads. Thanks for listening and until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch, tot de volgende keer.

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