By Alaina Eck
Bilingual children acquiring English in school often make mistakes that sound like those of monolingual children struggling with Specific Language Impairment or other language disorders. These mistakes, which are part of the typical language development for bilingual children, may include leaving out or adding sounds or words, or using word orders that are incorrect in English. In addition, cultural differences may influence the language use of bilingual children (e.g. not speaking directly to adults). Many teachers and speech-language pathologists are not trained to expect these errors or patterns from bilingual children, which can lead to unnecessary referrals to the speech-language pathologist (Crago, Genessee, & Paradis, 2011). This creates a strain on schools and districts with already limited resources, and can keep the child away from crucial classroom time.
When speech-language pathologists receive these referrals, they must carefully distinguish between language differences and language disorders. As a future speech-language pathologist potentially receiving these referrals, I began researching the current guidelines to properly assess bilingual children. I found many of the guidelines and standards vague, and it seemed as though speech-language pathologists were left to determine for themselves whether they were qualified to make the proper determination for the child.
In my research, I distributed a survey to school-based speech-language pathologists across the country to gauge their self-perceived competency in tackling the important issue of assessment. As it turns out, speech-language pathologists who reported having specialized coursework and training, as well as those with experience working with bilinguals, reported being much more competent with the assessment of bilinguals. The results of my research thus points to the importance of increased development and training for speech-language pathologists in this area.
My research has led me to advocate for a standardized education and training program for speech-language pathologists, to prepare them to more effectively assess bilinguals. On a local level, the research supports a ‘staff specialist’ model, where a designated speech-language pathologist would assess and serve any bilingual student referred within the district or geographic area. These ‘specialists’ would be speech-language pathologists with extensive training and experience working with bilingual students. In addition, speech-language pathologists can educate teachers about the typical language development patterns of bilingual children learning English to limit the confusion between language differences and language disorders.
Parents are also vital in the assessment process, as they are important resources regarding the language development of students in their home languages, the language patterns they observe outside of school, and any cultural practices that may be contributing to the observed differences. With increased education, collaboration, and mindfulness, all bilingual children can benefit from the effective assessments they deserve and receive all the resources they require to meet their full potential.
Alaina Eck recently graduated with Honors from PSU’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org