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Bilingual Kids Stutter More

Those who study stuttering have suspected that bilingual kids are more likely to stutter than kids who speak just one language. An article released online last week in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (a British Medical Journal publication) solidifies that connection -- but without explaining how or why the link exists.

Researchers at University College London tracked 317 kids living in the greater London area between the ages of 8 and 10 who had been referred to a clinic for treatment for stuttering, which they'd started at an average age of about 4.5 years old. As is typical among people who stutter, there were four times as many boys as girls.

Kids who spoke more than one language before they went to school were much more likely to stutter than those who hadn't begun speaking English until they started school (at age 4 or 5). And many more of those who spoke only one language before they turned 5 had stopped stuttering by age 12 than those who spoke two languages in early childhood.

Almost all the bilingual kids who stuttered did so in both of their languages.

The study notes that stuttering kids' school performance didn't appear to be adversely affected. Still, the authors suggest that for kids whose first language isn't English, it might be worthwhile, if possible, to wait a while before teaching them English. That might lower the likelihood that kids will start stuttering in the first place, they say, and increase their odds of recovery from stuttering later on.

Apparently stuttering, the cause of which is unknown (though heredity may play a role, as stuttering sometimes runs in families) is often treatable through speech therapy. It's not considered "curable." In many instances it simply goes away on its own. But it is by all accounts a life-altering condition, often changing the way people feel about themselves and the way they interact with others.

Still, this study's not an argument against kids' being bilingual. In fact, as this 2004 study revealed, being bilingual may help build denser grey matter in the brain -- and hence makes people smarter.

So, let's talk about talking. Do you or a loved one stutter? How has that affected your life? And how about being bilingual? Does that make things harder or easier for you and your family?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 15, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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Comments

Nonsense. 80% of monolingual English-speaking teenagers use the word "like" at a ratio of 3 / 1 as a share of words in a given sentence. 80% of monolingual Spanish-speaking teenagers use the words "este" or "sabes" in similar proportion. That is stuttering like no other. The "experts" picking on the bilingual students are merely looking for a way to bill the public for speach therapy adjuncts to bilingual programs.

Posted by: jkoch | September 15, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I teach English as a foreign language and I have had students who stutter in their native language but not in English. Or students who stutter when they speak but not when they sing.
Interesting.

Posted by: Aladdin | September 15, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

As a mother of two bi-lingual children, I'd have to say that the school years can be difficult but it's worth it in the end. And indeed, the problem may not be being bi-lingual but rather being bi-cultural. It's enriching but also a complicating factor and lots of kids don't need anything complicating their school years.

Posted by: aladdin | September 15, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

This study makes no sense. Does that mean that people in Europe or Africa who speak three or four languages stutter more?

Posted by: Vienna | September 15, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

I have 3 children who are growing up bilingual. This is very interesting to me, because my son has some small stuttering difficulties, while I don't recall that my girls had any. My son has them in English, which is what he speaks more fluently, and does not stutter at all in French. His stuttering is very minor, but I often wait for some time before he can get out what he wants to say. He is 8yo. We often attributed his stuttering to his great gift for math, but who knows? I think clearly you'd have to do a lot of research before the link between bilingualism and stuttering was really proven.

Posted by: Andrea | September 15, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

This study broaches an interesting general thesis but doesn't close the book on it. If the numbers bear out the conclusion that "bilingual children stutter more, then it really only presents a secondary (and more generally useful) hypothesis that "those who expend extra effort to choose their next words carefully stutter more." I am a hyperfluent native English speaker and never had a diagnosis of stuttering as a child (because I didn't stutter). However, many times over the years, I have found myself at the edge of what some would call a stammer just because my mind was winnowing a list of approximate words to find a perfect fit. Similar pauses can present themselves when I'm speaking French or German, as I'm only good in those languages and not fluent. Bilingual children -- even when truly fluent in each language -- are nevertheless scrolling through their own word lists, factoring denotative definitions first, filtering according to connotative definitions, and finally choosing the best word based on the situation.

Posted by: Shane | September 15, 2008 1:06 PM | Report abuse

This study does not look at bilingual children who do not stutter, so I don't think that a conclusion can be drawn that teaching children 2 languages at a young age means they will stutter. More research is needed on stuttering.

Posted by: Clara | September 15, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I put my son into a bilingual immersion program and he was miserable. I noticed the stuttering, the brand new inability to talk in public, the way he would ignore what the teacher was saying and in general he and his friends were turning that school upside down. It was, I can saw with authority and absolute unmitigated disaster. A number of the parents started to blame the teacher. But as English-dominant summer camp started, that included a small Spanish part of the day- a group of us who were parents at the camp noticed complete changes in our children. Behavioral problems disappeared, listening to the counselors improved greatly, behavior at camp and at home was perfect. My son who refused to open a book for months suddenly read on his own. our of 21 kids in his class altogether 8 students left the program and all of us who were in the same summer camp left.

But that's not all, at my son's new school I ran into parents who had their kids not only in Spanish immersion, but in Chinese, French and Hebrew classes and they started telling us the same stories- exposing their kids to foreign languages at age 4, 5, 6 caused behavioral, reading and writing issues that resolved themselves when they removed the "second language" from school and home.

Simply put, bilingual education is a massive failure for the majority of parents we know. We were sold a bill of goods that is based on a lie. We believed that our children would learn to speak both languages well and there was no better time than age 5. The reality that we all faced is that bilingualism has bread emotional and behavioral issues. I am going to give my son every opportunity to learn Spanish again around age 8 or 9, but before that? Teaching children a foreign language is nothing short of abusive and I can name 11 kids who know this is true. I don't believe any of those papers I read about bilingual education and neither should you.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 15, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I guess that depends on how you define studdering. My husband is from another country and I notice studdering in his family when they speak both languages. They have to switch back and forth between the languages when in a mixed crowd. In doing so you have to think about every word you are saying, not only for correct pronuncation, but also for definition and context. So, of course you are going to pause or studder before the words come out.
I do the same thing when I am trying to speak his language, and as an added discomfort, I worry that I sound stupid speaking their language to them.

Posted by: jax,nc | September 15, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I grew up bilingual. I didn't stammer or stutter. In many European countries, the Netherlands, for example, finding folks on the street who speak English, German, French as well as the native Dutch is quite common. Only here is speaking more than one language considered controversial. This is just one more excuse to continue to wall ourselves off from the rest of humanity.

Posted by: Bernard | September 15, 2008 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous writes: "Simply put, bilingual education is a massive failure for the majority of parents we know. We were sold a bill of goods that is based on a lie. We believed that our children would learn to speak both languages well and there was no better time than age 5. The reality that we all faced is that bilingualism has bread emotional and behavioral issues. I am going to give my son every opportunity to learn Spanish again around age 8 or 9, but before that? Teaching children a foreign language is nothing short of abusive I grew up bilingual."
RESPONSE: Why don't you admit that perhaps your kid doesn't have talent in languages and stop projecting those issues to other people. I grew up bilingual. I picked up fairly decent French thereafter. I didn't stammer or stutter. In many European countries, the Netherlands, for example, finding folks on the street who speak English, German, French as well as the native Dutch is quite common. Only here is speaking more than one language considered controversial. The attitude here appears to be that everyone speaks English, so why bother learning Spanish, or Hindi, or even Mandarin? This is just one more excuse to continue to wall ourselves off from the rest of humanity.

Posted by: Bernard | September 15, 2008 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I am bilingual and I don't stutter. In fact, ALL of the people I grew up with are bilingual and NONE stutter. This study is such BS and I agree that it is yet another excuse for xenophobic Americans to stick to one language. Everyone around the world seems to learn more than one language with no adverse effects, but not Americans.

Posted by: Bev | September 15, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I grew up learning/speaking/reading/writing only my mother tongue until I was about 9 or 10 years old and then started English along side. A year later, I started yet another language which later became my second language in high school and college (Where I grew up, English was the first language in high school and college). By the time I started my masters at the age of 21, I was studying in yet another place and learned the local language, completely my personal effort, learning from friends and learning the alphabets. Today, I can speak, read and write in all 4 of the languages. I can understand a few more, though not very well. I am probably just as fluent in English as my mother tongue which I don't use much anymore, also because my wife has English as her mother tongue.

I think the argument in this article has some merit and I don't think I would have the same level of ability in all these languages had I started learning them much younger. The one thing I have realized is that as I learn more languages, learning a newer one gets so much easier.

Maybe we should let the kids learn their mother tongues well enough before trying to get them to learn another one :-).

Posted by: Sam | September 15, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

My son is in the second year of a Spanish immersion program at his elementary school. He loves it. He has other problems--ADHD, OCD, anxiety--but learning Spanish is a source of pride for him and I think it also keeps him from getting bored in school. If anything he speaks even more clearly as he sometimes thinks in two languages. Maybe that's the issue for some kids?

Posted by: ItshotinPHX | September 15, 2008 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Both my kids study at a school where ALL the kids are bilingual - not one stutters.

Posted by: Niels | September 15, 2008 4:53 PM | Report abuse

RESPONSE: Why don't you admit that perhaps your kid doesn't have talent in languages and stop projecting those issues to other people.
-----

Sure, but what about the other 7 kids in his class and the other 4 kids in his new class whose parents all told us the exact same story whether it was Spanish, Chinese or Hebrew and whether you were in DC, Silver Spring or Rockville, MD? You think some how that we're ALL experiencing individual issues? I'll tell you, I am onto something with this bilingual issue. I am NOT letting my son get into a Spanish program until age 8.

People who think this is about xenophobia are out of their minds. If I was xenophobic then why did I go out of my way to sign my son up for Spanish Immersion? Come back to reality.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 15, 2008 4:56 PM | Report abuse

and anyone who thinks that monolingualism is US-specific has never been to Paris or Berlin, where if you don't make an attempt to speak their language they will not help you. Both cities are very proud about their languages and Paris is far more intolerant of non-French speakers than Washington, DC is of, let's say, Spanish speakers. Ditto with Quebec City.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 15, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Aladdin:
"I teach English as a foreign language and I have had students....who stutter when they speak but not when they sing."

ALL stutterers are able to sing.

Posted by: Jim | September 15, 2008 5:26 PM | Report abuse

In the thirteen years I have taught at a university, I have met hundreds and hundreds of bilingual students. I have only known one bilingual student who stuttered (past tense - he rarely stutters now) - In the time I lived in Mexico (late 1990s), and other extended stays in Europe I have never met any bilingual people who stuttered.

I find it interesting that this study would make the news, when the complications of the United States being a monolingual nation are rarely addressed in the media. Americans are criticized all over the world for not bothering to learn a second or third language.

dreamacttexas.blogspot.com

Posted by: Marie-Theresa Hernandez | September 15, 2008 9:57 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in India and am trilingual. Everyone I know from India speaks more than 1 language. Furthermore, I do not believe that more Indians stutter. They should, shouldn't they, what with being bi- or tri-lingual?

Posted by: Lucky | September 15, 2008 10:48 PM | Report abuse

It's hard for me to fathom the parent who considers bilingual education abusive. There are other things going on here. But whatever they are, it is also clear that bilingual education may not be good for every kid. My two kids are enrolled in a public, bilingual program in NYC with mostly fantastic teachers (OK, second grade stank). My daughter, in 4th grade, is reading Spanish at grade-level, and speaking well, if not confidently. Her spoken and written English is exceptional and dysfluency-free. My kindergartener son, who was in speech therapy for stuttering for nine months of last year is doing very well, loving school, and feels a bit clueless, but is excited by the challenge. Though his stuttering improved, with therapy, it didn't stop; he can regain fluency better now than he could before the therapy, and can now begin sentences without a stutter. It has gotten a little worse since his bilingual education started, but it gets a little worse with every transition, and then settles back again. The point--to make a short story long--is that the study cannot tell you that bilingualism CAUSES stuttering because it draws its sample on the dependent variable, and thus violates a basic principle of causal inference. It just mentions an association. OF COURSE most bilingual people don't stutter. And most stutterers may not be bilingual. And bilingual education is not abusive, and, and, and...calm down folks.

Posted by: John | September 15, 2008 11:33 PM | Report abuse

In French Canada, there is an old joke:

A person who speaks three languages is trilingual, person who speaks two languages is bilingual, a person who speaks one language is English.

Posted by: Joe | September 16, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

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