Selective Mutism and bilingualism

Headline News: Rising number of anxious polyglots

Phil Thomason is a father of three children, the eldest of which was diagnosed with selective mutism in 2007 after 5 years silence in the school setting. Following the advice available his child has since overcome the disorder, and Phil has since dedicated a lot of his spare time to the SMIRA cause online and internationally from his home in Germany. Phil is concerned particularly with the impact on selective mutism of factors such as migration and multi-lingualism. Phil gave the keynote speech at the SMIRA Conference 2015 and continues to advocate on behalf of SMIRA at every opportunity. his child had Selective Mutism, he is a very proactive dad. Phil collaborates with SMIRA

He kindly agreed to be part of my BLOG HOP to raise awareness for Selective Mutism, I will be writing about where anxiety comes from here are the other blogs:

We are both adults bilingual and we often debate and chat about SM and bilingualism. So here are his views.

Being an anxious polyglot and Selective Mutism

Anyone can be bi-lingual by merit of having parents who speak different languages or by acquiring a second language through exposure or education. Some people acquire more than one additional language. Polyglots exist all around the world. If you then add genetic anxiety to the language mix the result can be selective mutism (SM) as a person fails to communicate at all in certain situations.

Research has shown normal levels of SM to be close to 1/150 children while for those who are polyglot the level of SM can be 1/50 or three times higher[1]. SM is known to affect older children and into adulthood. The APA DSM5 2013 recently classified SM as an anxiety disorder removing the previously limiting which classified it as a ‘childhood’ (only) disorder. In 2018 the WHO ICD-11 will be updated as well.

Causal factors

For sure migration is a potential trigger for anxiety. Migration was listed as a causal ‘trigger’ factor in the Carmody research, Dublin, 1999 which has been adapted into the Johnson-Wintgens Model in 2016[2]. With this in mind we can become proactive by targeting support to those known to be at risk.

Given certain geopolitical and economic factors, in Europe over the last few years we have seen rising numbers of migrants. One impact would be the need to learn a new language as a migrant arrives in a new host country. Some countries are open to migration while others are less or not open to it.

Over the last 60 years, European borders have been more and more open, and as a result there has been a certain amount of what we could call cultural mixing. The end of the Colonial era has also resulted in trans-continental migration. These factors are enhanced by easier travel, and a revolution in communication technology.

It is possible for some cultures to hide the issue. A migrant tends to stay together with their own people in the host community. In that case, there is the risk that the issue might not be dealt with by the host, but rather hidden by the migrant community.

It would therefore be of interest to analyse the effect of migration and host approaches to acclimatisation.


Countries like Canada, Belgium and Luxembourg are multi-lingual. From the top down. Other countries around the world are even more so if you take countries like China, India or Switzerland. The USA has something like 30% of its under-5 population classified as migrant.

Migration is a source of fear, stress or even trauma. Selective Mutism is not Traumatic Mutism. Progressive Mutism is the term to describe those who are totally unable to speak despite being physically able to do so.

Adaptation or acclimatization

Migrants change as they move. They adapt, but so does the host environment. Europe will adapt as it always has done as migrants arrive. Some countries in Europe have a polyglot approach already depending on their history. Other countries are in the process of understanding and adapting while some countries, regions, schools, professionals continue to ‘stick’.

Irregular or untimely updates to monolithic medical terminology and diagnostic criteria have not helped. The term ‘elective’ is still in use and needs to be removed.

But SM is not just about migrants. SM occurs in the mono-lingual population before any migrant arrives.

If awareness of SM is on the rise, then we should see more and more adaptation in the way hosts will deal with SM even in the host population.

In Germany, the Berlin Model (INFANS, 1969) is in use for kindergarten entry (3Y) so why not adapt this to all migrants regardless of their age.


We can reduce the incidence of SM by the increase in awareness of the disorder and by being proactive in dealing with newcomers in the host community.

… by being proactive … I’m just a dad … a proactive dad.

I agree with Phil, that we need to raise more awareness and work with bilingual families. My worry is that some of them receive suggestions to stop using their own mother tongue… that is definitely a trigger for anxiety. Thank you for your contribution.

Carmody proof – Does the Carmody based causation model 3 factors (adapted by Johnson & Wintgens, 2016) provide an accurate vision of the SM population

[1] Source: Elizur & Perednick, 2003, Israel.

[2] The Selective Mutism Resource Manual 2nd Edition, Johnson & Wintgens, 2016. Routledge.

Anna Biavati-Smith
Specialist Speech and language Therapist
© Copyright 2017 . All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Phil Thomason

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