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Intellectual Disabilities and Language Learning
July 2019


What does the research say about the ability of individuals with intellectual disabilities to learn additional languages, and does the learning of additional languages impact native language?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Burgoyne, K., Duff, F. J., Nielsen, D., Ulicheva, A., & Snowling, M. J. (2016). Bilingualism and biliteracy in Down syndrome: Insights from a case study. Language Learning, 66(4), 945–971. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"We present the case study of MB—a bilingual child with Down syndrome (DS) who speaks Russian (first language [L1]) and English (second language [L2]) and has learned to read in two different alphabets with different symbol systems. We demonstrate that, in terms of oral language, MB is as proficient in Russian as English, with a mild advantage for reading in English, her language of formal instruction."

Cheatham, G. A., Santos, R. M., & Kerkutluoglu, A. (2012). Review of comparison studies investigating bilingualism and bilingual instruction for students with disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 45(3), 1–12. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this article is to provide a narrative review of comparison studies regarding the impacts of bilingualism and interventions including the home and second language for students with disabilities. Although research is limited, preliminary findings from existing studies illustrate that bilingualism does not negatively impact language or academic abilities for students with disabilities."

Edgin, J. O., Kumar, A., Spanò, G., & Nadel, L. (2011). Neuropsychological effects of second language exposure in Down syndrome. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 55(3), 351–356. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"While it has been common practice to discourage second language learning in neurodevelopmental disorders involving language impairment, little is known about the effects of second language exposure (SLE) on broader cognitive function in these children. Past studies have not found differences on language tasks in children with Down syndrome (DS) and SLE. We expand on this work to determine the effects on the broader cognitive profile, including tests tapping deficits on neuropsychological measures of prefrontal and hippocampal function."

Feltmate, K., & Kay-Raining Bird, E. (2008). Language learning in four bilingual children with Down syndrome: A detailed analysis of vocabulary and morphosyntax. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, 32(1), 6–20. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Bilingualism in children with Down syndrome (DS) is an under-studied topic. Some professionals counsel families to restrict input to a single language for children with DS because there are delays present even when only one language is being learned. The purpose of the current study was to provide more information about the ability of children with DS to learn two languages. Such evidence is important for guiding clinical decisions."

García-Alcaraz, E. (2018). The narrative abilities of an English-Spanish bilingual with Prader-Willi syndrome. Languages, 3(3), 1–28. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The aim of this study was to analyze the narrative abilities of a 33-year-old English-Spanish bilingual with Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS). The few previous linguistic studies examining monolinguals with PWS have focused primarily on these individuals’ narrative capacity, revealing a performance deficit in this area (Lewis et al. 2002; Garayzábal-Heinze et al. 2012). The present study is novel in that it examines a bilingual speaker and also tests his narrative abilities in both languages."

Kay-Raining Bird, E., Genesee, F., & Verhoeven, L. (2016). Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: A narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders, 63, 1–14. Prepublication version retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Children with developmental disabilities (DD) often need and sometimes opt to become bilingual. The context for bilingual acquisition varies considerably and can impact outcomes. In this first article of the special issue, we review research on the timing and amount of bilingual exposure and outcomes of either direct language intervention or educational placements in three groups of children with DD: Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and Down syndrome (DS)."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Down syndrome, Intellectual OR Cognitive OR Developmental, Disabilities, Dual language OR Second language OR Additional language OR Foreign language, Bilingual OR Biliteracy, English learner

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.