Raising a Multilingual (AAC) Child

Published: 02/07/2019 20:45

By Carolina Caggiano

Follow Carolina on Instagram at @superaacmom

Hi, my name is Carolina Caggiano, and I´m an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) mom raising a multilingual family. My oldest child, Isabella, is an eye gaze AAC user. Introducing and implementing AAC into a family doesn’t come without its challenges. But what happens when the AAC user is also part of a multilingual family? What are the challenges, and what the outcome can be. Well, we are that family, and this is our story.

Our language journey hasn’t been an easy one. We transitioned from being a multilingual family, to a monolingual family (once AAC was introduced to our lives) to finally became, the family we were always meant to be, a multilingual (AAC) family.

My daughter Isabella was born 10 years ago into a multilingual family. My husband speaks Norwegian, I speak Spanish, and together we speak English. It was natural for us to speak all three languages on our daily basis.

At the age of 1 year old, Isabella was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Her diagnosis affected our daughter´s ability to control her body. Before we found out CP would also compromise Isabella´s speech production, we spoke all three languages together. That was our family, a multilingual one.

Isabella was almost 2 years old when we found out her diagnosis would also affect her speech. When AAC was introduced to our lives, there was an old assumption linking speech delay and bilingualism. That assumption pushed us to make a very difficult decision: as we live in Norway, we would only focus on developing Isabella´s Norwegian skills. We then, went from being a multilingual family, to a monolingual one. We thought that multilingualism and AAC were not compatible. We were wrong.

As we continue to educate ourselves in all AAC related, Isabella received her first Tobii Dynavox with eye gaze.  Her device would give our daughter the chance to communicate, but little did we know it would give her so much more. It didn’t take long before Isabella started to show big improvements to communicate using symbols. We, as a family, continued to speak, model and add symbols to her book, only in Norwegian. We were eager to learn more about AAC, particularly how to program her Tobii and how to implement AAC at home. We knew that in order to help our daughter learn AAC, we would have to first, learn AAC ourselves.

As Isabella´s communicational skills continued to improve, she became more and more curious about my mother tongue, a.k.a., Spanish. Isabella asked me to teach her Spanish. This was a period full of uncertainties, as we didn’t want to compromise her acquired Norwegian skills. In other words, we were unsure about what was the right thing to do.

By the time Isabella turned 4 years old, she was able to form sentences in Norwegian, choosing from a wide variety of symbols. It was then we decided to give Isabella access to a Norwegian keyboard. We modeled Norwegian letter sounds, spelling, and showed her how to write some simple words; it was nothing formal, as our intention was to give her the chance to “play” with words. It didn’t take long until Isabella started to write her first words in Norwegian. We continued to model, and she continued to bloom.

When Isabella was 5 years old, I couldn’t hold back teaching her Spanish any longer. She was eager to learn the language, and quite frankly, I ran out of excuses of why I couldn’t teach her Spanish. We took a leap of faith and prayed that introducing Spanish modeling, wouldn´t affect her Norwegian language development. Multilingualism and AAC was unknown territory for us, but we gave Isabella access to the same symbol-book she originally had in Norwegian, translated into Spanish. Language development was happening fast, and at 5 years old, Isabella transitioned from using her Norwegian symbol-book, to exclusively write in Norwegian. She also continued to improve on the use of her Spanish symbol-book.

To give Isabella access to a Spanish keyboard, felt as the obvious next step. This decision proved to be correct, as Isabella started to write her first words in Spanish short after. Modeling in Norwegian and Spanish, became a normal part of our everyday.

Isabella started first grade being able to read and write in Norwegian, and well on her way on developing Spanish skills. She attended a regular school, and she was part of a regular class. Part of the school´s curricula was to learn English. Isabella got access to an English keyboard as she started first grade. At this point, Isabella had access to three different keyboards on her Tobii, in three different languages, Norwegian, Spanish and English. Modelling in all three languages became our new normal.

Isabella is currently 10 years old and will be starting 5th grade next year. She is the oldest of 4 siblings, and her language skills continue to blossom. Isabella can now, read and write in all three languages, Norwegian, Spanish and English, and we continue our daily language modeling. We have finally become, the family we were always meant to, a multilingual AAC family. This proves only one thing, AAC and multilingualism are in fact compatible. Our language journey hasn’t been easy, as it was full of uncertainties, but it has been worth it.

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