Are dominance and proficiency the same?

This is a question that comes up from time to time, and I see some people using it interchangeably, I see this in the scientific literature and I see it in every day conversations and practice. So, what gives?

Let’s first look at the dictionary definitions:

Dominant: (from the learners dictionary by Merriam-Webster)

[more dominant; most dominant]

: more important, powerful, or successful than most or all others

  • The company is now dominant in the market

most common

  •  The dominant [=prevailing] language/religion of the country

biology : causing or relating to a characteristic or condition that a child will have if one of the child’s parents has it

  • dominant genes

Proficient: (also from the learners dictionary)

[more proficient; most proficient]

 : good at doing something : skillful

  • proficient reader
  • He has become very proficient at computer programming.
  • She is proficient in two foreign languages.

So, these aren’t exactly the same. In the work that I have done in language and language impairment, my collaborators and I try to distinguish between the two. Why does it matter?

I think especially in research and clinical work in language impairment it’s important to separate out the two. Children with typical development may demonstrate dominance in one language or another (or both), and at the same time they may have high levels of proficiency in both their languages. That is, they can be highly proficient users of both their languages at yet have MORE dominance in one of their languages.

In contrast children with language impairment demonstrate low proficiency in both their languages (not in every domain of course, they may show relative strengths in some aspects of language). At the same time they can be stronger (within their own performance) in their first language or in their second language or in both of their languages.

I think we can get into trouble when we assume that low proficiency in one language means dominance in the other. It doesn’t. We CAN have kids who show low proficiency in L1 and high proficiency in L2 and are dominant in L2. We can also have kids who show low proficiency in both and have dominance in only one language. We can have those who have high proficiency in both and be more dominance in one. The danger with conflating the two terms (and therefore measures) is that it could lead to bad decisions.

If the assumption is that a child with low proficiency in one language is therefore dominant in the other, it could lead to delaying of services (RTI, speech or language intervention, reading intervention) if they have a true impairment. It might be assumed that low proficiency in one  language equals low proficiency overall, and this assumption might lead to a diagnosis of a language impairment even if the child actually does NOT have an impairment (and is actually highly proficient in the other language). If a child is not very proficient in either language, this may lead people to say something like, they have no language (I totally hate that, unless they are in a coma, I don’t know how this could be). This assumption might lead to giving parents suggestions like only using one language because the child has incomplete language acquisition in both. Like monolingualism would be the cure for language impairment. UGH!

So, don’t get rid of one term. We need both proficiency (to measure how good children are at each language) and dominance (to determine which is the stronger of the two languages for a given bilingual child).

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On Internationally Adopted Children

Came across this blog post on speech/language referrals of children who are adopted internationally. Are these kids bilingual? Do we need to evaluate their first language?

http://www.smartspeechtherapy.com/dear-school-professionals-please-be-aware-of-this/

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Bilingual Texting

This article reminded me of our texting experiences this winter break. My mom, aunt, brother and cousins rented a house near the beach, my sister lives in the east coast and I was with my husband’s family in WI (brrr). Anyway, we texted each other to keep up with who was doing what, and the texts were in a combination of English and Spanish. Someone would write something and someone else would respond, and not always in the original language. But, it doesn’t matter because we all know both– right?

Well, but the autocorrect doesn’t know both. So, the other night we were texting and my cousin closed with “vespas.” I didn’t know what she meant but I figured context would eventually win out. But, everyone was confused. What could she mean? Who got a vespa? is there another word in Spanish that is close to vespa that she really meant? or is it some new slang that the rest of us don’t know?

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Measuring vocabulary development in bilingual children

Elizabeth D. Peña:

Took me a while to come across this, but I ran across this post today looking for a copy of Core, et al’s paper and here’s a nice summary. The post spoke to me (and not only because it was posted on my birthday) but also because the work demonstrates the importance of looking at both languages when testing bilingual children–

Originally posted on so to Speak:

The topic of my first Research Tuesday Blog is (drumroll please): “Total and Conceptual Vocabulary in Spanish–English Bilinguals From 22 to 30 Months: Implications for Assessment.”

This is all there is to see folks

This is all there is to see, folks

To understand the purpose and findings of this article it is beneficial to know the difference between total and conceptual vocabulary.

Total vocabulary is the sum of the words a child knows across two languages.

Conceptual vocabulary gives the child credit for knowing concepts rather than words, and concepts that are represented in both languages are counted only once.

So basically, when looking at a bilingual child’s total vocabulary you would count both the word perro and the word dog. If you were looking at conceptual vocabulary you would only give the child credit for knowing one concept: the furry, four-legged creature in my house which barks and eats kibble is a dog/perro.

The bottom…

View original 614 more words

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Test Development, Item Bias, and the BESA

A couple of people have asked me whether the BESA can work with children in the Eastern US. Yes, I know I’m in Texas and the kids we see here are mainly speakers of Mexican Spanish. But, that doesn’t mean we didn’t collect data from kids in other parts of the country. Or that we didn’t collect data on kids who speak different dialects of Spanish. We collected data mainly in three places: California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. We also had data contributed from other places including Georgia, Utah and New Jersey. What was most important was that we included children who used conservative dialects of Spanish and radical dialects of Spanish. Also, for English speakers, we considered what dialect or variety of English they were learning including: Texas English, California English, African American English, general American English and so on. Why does this matter? Read the rest of this entry »

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Independent Research using the BESA

My collaborators and I did a number of studies of morphosyntax, semantics, phonology and pragmatics that informed development of the final version of the BESA. We’ve since done other studies using the BESA as an indicator of language impairment or phonological impairment. In addition, it is important to have independent studies of the BESA that evaluate its effectivness. There are a few studies so far that use the BESA, and I hope soon there will be more. Here is what I hope is only a partial list:  Read the rest of this entry »

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Receptive-Expressive Gaps in Bilinguals with LI

In a new paper in the area of semantics, we did an analysis of a group of bilingual 7 to 9;11 year old children with and without language impairment. We were interested in seeing if children with LI showed similar patterns on receptive and expressive semantics tasks compared to bilingual children with typical development. In a previous study, we examined younger (preschool age) bilingual children on expressive and receptive semantics items on the BESOS. In that study, described here, we found that in English, children showed higher standard scores receptivity compared to the scores they were able to achieve expressively when they had very little English exposure. We proposed that it was important to understand this potential for a receptive-expressive gap in children with LI. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dynamic Assessment of Bilingual Children in English

Previously, I talked about some exciting work that was being done in the area of dynamic assessment. This work together is looking at how to apply dynamic assessment to ELLs. We have our own contribution to make as well. The results give SLPs another potential strategy to use to determine whether children have language difference or language impairment. What’s really cool about this is that it works with children who know just a little English.

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BESA Research

I’ve been meaning to post some information about the Bilingual English Spanish Assessment and we have. Here, we respond to some FAQs. And here, I provided an overview of what it does, how it works, and its specificity/sensitivity data. In addition to this information and what is in the manual, we have written a number of papers over the years that led directly to what we included (and excluded) from the BESA. So, below I will provide some of the links to abstracts of papers we’ve written about earlier versions of the BESA. These are the studies that we conduced to refine the items and the test so that the final published version has a high degree of classification accuracy.

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Really? Can kids with Language Impairment or _____ Learn TWO Languages?

Is the earth round, really? It seems flat to me. I’ve been in many places in the world and I haven’t heard about anyone falling off it and so from my own logic and experience it appears the earth is flat. This is how evidence goes it seems and I find myself getting frustrated but I do try to understand the logic of disbelief– even in light of evidence. Yes, the earth is round (a sphere actually) and children with language impairment and those with other disabilities that affect language learning CAN (and do) become bilingual. No, they do not become MORE delayed. Read the rest of this entry »

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