Benefits of a bilingual education for children with special needs

Posted on: 03 May 2018

Children with special needs can benefit from a bilingual education, according to the organisers of a public discussion on bilingual education which took place in Trinity College Dublin on Thursday, May 3..

At the event academics and educational experts shared their perspectives and research on bilingual education for children with speech, language and communication difficulties with particular reference to Irish-medium and Gaeltacht education. The wider issue of bilingual education was also  discussed at the event organised by the Irish Research Network in Childhood Bilingualism and Multilingualism in partnership with Gaeloideachas — the national representative organisation for Irish-medium schools at both primary and post-primary level, including the Gaeltacht.

More and more children in Ireland are growing up speaking two or more languages in the home or within the school environment, explains bilingualism expert Dr Francesca La Morgia, Assistant Professor in Clinical Speech and Language Studies in Trinity, who co-ordinates the Irish Research Network in Childhood Bilingualism and Multilingualism.

“A growing body of research is showing that bilingual education is a beneficial system of education for children with varying special educational needs, including children with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Down Syndrome. Education through the medium of Irish in Ireland, and other forms of bilingual education, offers many advantages to children, including literacy and fluency in two languages; greater confidence and sense of identity and cognitive and increased educational attainment. These advantages are available to all children, including those with special educational needs.”

“Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings and myths surrounding bilingual education for children with special needs that lead to these children being excluded from a potentially advantageous form of education. It is common for parents to be concerned that a bilingual environment could cause confusion and exacerbate language delays. However, evidence shows that with appropriate supports, language immersion education gives children an enriched learning environment. Bilingual children with learning difficulties have been found to perform to the same level as their peers who are monolingual, but they leave school with language skills that the monolingual children don’t possess.”

Speakers at the free public event included Professor Ianthi Tsimpli , University of Cambridge; Professor Padraig O’Duibhir, Dublin City University; Dr Ciara O’Toole, University College Cork; Dr Maria Garraffa, Heriot-Watt University and Clodagh Ní Mhaoilchiaráin, Principal of Gaelscoil Bhaile Brigín, Co Dublin an Irish-medium school with two ASD units. The event will be chaired by Trinity’s Dr La Morgia.

Bláthnaid ní Ghréacháin, CEO, Gaeloideachas added: “One of the misperceptions about Irish-medium education is that children with special educational needs are not represented in Irish-medium schools, or indeed that they will not cope in a school where all the activities take place through Irish. We know, however, from the research, both national and international and from our experience in dealing with schools and parents that this is not the case, and we hope to reassure parents of that fact. Children of varying additional needs are well represented in Irish-medium schools and the research shows that these children do as well in bilingual education settings as they would in an English-medium school, and for many children, including those with autism bilingual education may even be the better option.”

The event formed part of a day-long programme on bilingualism organised by the Irish Research Network in Childhood Bilingualism and Multilingualism. Earlier in the day, Professor Ianthi Tsimpli, University of Cambridge, will deliver a key note speech at 1pm in Trinity Long Room Hub, on multilingual children in underprivileged contexts focusing on research into the literacy, numeracy and cognition in primary school children in India.

In her public lecture, Professor Tsimpli discussed how multilingualism can be an advantage for both language and cognition and will report on some preliminary findings from a large-scale project in primary school children in India focusing on numeracy, mathematical reasoning and cognitive tasks with the purpose of understanding the role of language of education in contexts of severe socioeconomic deprivation.

For further information about the day-long programme please see here: