Bilingualism​ overview

Key points

  • Bilingualism is an advantage in a person of any age. This is regardless of the specific combination of languages and/or dialects spoken by the bilingual person.
  • Bilingualism is an advantage regardless of the presence of a speech, language, or communication disorder, or feeding and swallowing difficulties.
  • Bilingualism does not cause, or contribute to a speech, language or communication disorder.
  • Working with interpreters is a core skill for SLTs and their responsibility to use their services under the Equality Act (2010).
  • Services should allocate at least double the time for bilingual clients and their families in order to achieve the same positive outcomes as monolingual clients, and therefore deliver an equitable service.

Definition of bilingualism

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Bilingualism is the ability to understand and/or use two or more languages. The term therefore encompasses ‘multilingualism’, which is the knowledge and/or use of several languages. The languages in question may be:

  • Spoken languages
  • Sign languages
  • A combination (Lillo-Martin et al, 2014)

However, ‘as language is a dynamic, complex social tool developed over extended time periods’ (Kohnert, 2013, p. 17), bilingualism does not have a straightforward definition.

An adult can be bilingual from childhood or become bilingual by acquiring another language(s) late in life due to:

  • Social interests,
  • Working related activities
  • Migration

A bilingual person may routinely use their languages in different contexts and for different purposes, such as home life and education or work. The bilingual person may therefore not have the same communicative skills in both their languages (Rowland, 2013).


The following are some characteristics of bilingualism:

  • Bilingualism is the ability to understand and/or use two or more languages. Individuals can be considered bilingual, regardless of the level of proficiency they have in either language.
  • Bilingualism in a child, a young person or an adult is a linguistic, social and possible cognitive advantage. Bilingualism promotes the ability to develop and maintain relationships with family and community. It provides a secure and strong sense of self-identity rooted in culture as well as increasing confidence as a communicator in both/all languages spoken. Bilingualism therefore contributes to an individual’s sense of wellbeing. The benefits of bilingualism include wider employment opportunities, easier additional language learning and possible cognitive gain.
  • Bilingualism is not a disorder. Bilingualism does not cause or contribute to a speech, language, communication or feeding and swallowing disorders.
  • Bilingual individuals are vulnerable to misdiagnosis where diversity is mistaken for disorder. Having a clear understanding of normal bilingual language use, i.e. interference, code-switching, language loss/attrition is crucial in order to avoid identifying these processes as a language difficulty. If linguistically and/or culturally inappropriate assessment tools are used to reach a diagnosis an incomplete picture of their skills will emerge.

Cultural competence

Speech and Language therapists will have to overcome linguistic, cultural and communication barriers that may adversely influence suitable assessment and intervention in order to provide equitable access to all patients.

Within any culture, there is an extensive range of beliefs and behaviours. Consequently, generalisations of cultural features may not be always accurate.

It is the responsibility of the SLT to become culturally competent by ongoing awareness of how their own cultural biases towards an individual may affect the service. In other words, the process of cultural competence originates with each of us. We all have our own culture which will impact on practice.

Adapting practice by constructing cultural knowledge and frequent self-assessment is indispensable to fully comprehend how values may affect our interaction with others.

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