Exploring Second Language Acquisition in Chinese Children

Research into child second language acquisition has shown there are risks that bilingual children are incorrectly diagnosed with language disorders or learning disabilities, writes Rebecca Connell.

As immigration from China into English speaking countries increased over the past few decades, a large population of young bilingual speakers has emerged. In Australia, 3.7 percent of the population speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or another Chinese dialect at home, while using English as their second language; making them the largest bilingual population in Australia.

While children are considered to be more flexible in acquiring a second language compared to adults, the topic of child second language acquisition is much debated amongst speech-language pathologists; in particular, distinguishing whether a bilingual child is experiencing language disorder or exhibiting language difference. This is especially difficult for Chinese children who tend to not only be bilingual, but bidialectal as well.

“We have a knowledge gap between language difference and disorder,” says Dr Weifeng Han, a senior lecturer in Speech Pathology at La Trobe University. “There are such misunderstandings about typical language development. Recently we have found out that if the child has a language disorder in one of their two or three languages, then all of their languages will have a problem. It’s about improving Speech-Language Pathology testing for bilingual children to better understand whether they have a disorder or are experiencing language differences.”

A language disorder, or impairment, is when a child exhibits issues with language comprehension and development. This can include a lack of literacy skills or difficulties in reading. Language difference is the result of learning two or more languages concurrently, sometimes confusing the syntax and grammar, or sound patterns between languages.

It is estimated that around seven percent of children experience a language disorder. However, there is debate as to whether diagnoses are accurate, and if, instead, the child is experiencing language difference as a result of being bi- or multilingual.

Dr Han’s research aims to separate language difference from disorder, as well as build an understanding of typical development in bilingual-bidialectal children, particularly those among multilingual/multicultural Chinese population.

In 2020, Dr Han has published two books exploring second language acquisition in Chinese children, titled Universal Grammar and the Initial State of Second Language Learning: Evidence of Chinese Multidialectal Children’s Acquisition of English at the Syntax-Semantics Interface (Springer) and Bidialectism in Second Language Interface Acquisition: Difference and Disorder (Cambridge Scholars).

Assessing a bilingual speaker’s linguistic abilities is more challenging than that of a monolingual speaker. Currently, tests for language disorders are predominantly monolingual, provided in English. Lack of diverse testing often results in an inaccurate diagnosis of children with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The effects of a wrong diagnosis can impact the child’s confidence, learning ability, and treatment can be time consuming and expensive.

“The problem is assessing a child with only one language test, the potential harm is they will be diagnosed with a disorder, lagging behind other children, and we won’t know if these problems persist in their other languages,” says Weifeng.

While a bilingual child may initially lag behind monolingual children in English competency from ages four to seven, research has shown these children catch up by ages ten to twelve.

"By looking at the academic results of children we’ve seen that by the time they reach highschool, multilingual children’s performance in all subjects on average excels that of monolingual children," says Dr Han. "On the surface, there is a language disadvantage for multilingual children. However, if you look into the future, these children catch up and they may perform even better than monolingual children.”