Bilingual Assessment and Language Dominance: We need to MOVE ON

A long time ago (about 25 to 30 years ago) I learned that bilingual children should be tested in their dominant or home language. The prevailing view then was that if you tested in the weaker language you wouldn’t be letting the child demonstrate what they knew. I think that this part is true. The other part of this perspective is that there wouldn’t be anything in the weaker language that wouldn’t be represented in the stronger language. I don’t believe that this part is true. It’s the 21st century… we know better.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Stuttering and bilingualism: Considerations for differential diagnosis

In 2009, there was an article published in the Archives of Childhood Disease that was subsequently picked up by Science Daily wherein the authors stated, “…if a child uses a language other than English in the home, deferring the time when they learn English reduces the chance of starting to stutter and aids the chances of recovery later in childhood.” This notion of bilingualism posing an increased risk for the development and persistence of stuttering has resulted in many parents questioning whether or not they should delay exposure to a second language until after the pre-school years – arguably the most optimal time period for second language acquisition. I have personally fielded multiple phone calls from parents as well as SLPs of bilingual children and my response to all has been the same – bilingualism is not a risk factor for the development or persistence of stuttering, however, it does appear to be a risk factor for the mis-identification of stuttering in bilingual speakers who are typically fluent.

Why is this the case? There are at least a few critical reasons to consider.

First, we need to recognize that the relatively few studies that have been completed thus far with bilingual persons who stutter are compromised by the lack of specificity with regard to bilingualism. As we detail in Coalson, Pena, and Byrd (2012) across the limited bilingual stuttering studies that presently exist, a large majority fail to adequately describe the participant’s bilingualism – most simply refer to the participant as “bilingual,” with no further details regarding language history, function, use, etc. provided.

Second, we have assumed for quite some time that SLPs do not have to speak the language of the person who stutters in order to be able to accurately identify the presence of stuttering. From this assumption we have further assumed that we can easily identify stuttering in bilingual speakers whether we do or do not speak each of the languages the person speaks. A significant limitation to this line of thinking is the investigation of identification accuracy of stuttering in Spanish-English bilinguals (Lee, Robb, Olmond, & Blomgren, 2014) did not include foils (i.e., speakers who do not stutter) – rather the only requirement was analysis of speakers with confirmed stuttering.

With that in mind, what do we really know about the identification accuracy of stuttering when the SLP also has to listen for the presence of stuttering in a bilingual Spanish-English speaker who does not stutter?

We recently published a study (Byrd, Watson, Bedore, & Mullis, in press) that demonstrates that, as expected, most SLPs are able to accurately identify stuttering in bilingual children with confirmed stuttering. What was unexpected given the assumption that identification of stuttering should be easy even if you do not speak the language, is that most SLPs mis-identified the presence of stuttering in the bilingual Spanish-English speaking children who are typically fluent. When these SLPs were asked why they thought the typically fluent bilingual speaker was a stutterer, almost all referred to the high frequency of speech disfluencies the child produced. A crucial consideration that none of the SLPs acknowledged is that their measure of what they considered to be high is based on guidelines derived from monolingual English speaking children who stutter. This raises the question – can these monolingual guidelines be applied to bilingual speakers?

In another newly published study (Byrd, Bedore, & Ramos, 2015) we demonstrate that the application of these monolingual guidelines to the bilingual speaker would result in the mis-identification of stuttering. In fact, the typically fluent Spanish-English bilingual children whose speech output we analyzed produced stuttering-like disfluencies at rates well above the 3% guideline, with some producing frequencies as high as 38%. These bilingual children who again were not stutterers also produced a mean number of iterations (repetition of the disfluent moment) that was markedly higher than what has been reported in monolingual English-speaking children who stutter. Why are these speakers so disfluent? Consider that the bilingual speaker is navigating many more motor and linguistic decisions than the monolingual speaker – the more potential decisions to make, the higher the likelihood for revisions or what we hear as speech disfluency.

Upon consideration of these findings, how can we differentiate a bilingual child who stutters from a bilingual child who does not?

Additional research is needed but our preliminary data suggest that clinicians should consider the quality not the quantity with regard to the speech disfluencies produced. For example, the production of monosyllabic word repetitions drove the frequency of stuttering-like disfluencies well above the 3% guideline. These bilingual children also produced high rates of sound repetitions and syllable repetitions – all of which are classically considered to be stuttering-like behaviors when produced above 3%. However, none of the typically fluent bilingual children we examined produced atypical prolonging of sounds – this finding suggests that the tension of the disfluent moment may be another differentiating factor. The typically fluent bilingual children we examined produced easy, effortless repetitions – no atypical tension characteristic of stuttering was observed. We also suggest that clinicians consider the rhythm as opposed to the number of iterations – is each repetition rhythmic in nature or is it highly arrhythmic? The latter would be indicative of stuttering. Our data also indicate that parent concern may be a differentiating factor. From a cultural perspective parent concern may be better evaluated as degree of concern rather than presence or absence but regardless among our cohort of bilingual children who do not stutter there was no present or past parent concern of stuttering to any degree.

Together, our data suggest clinicians should take caution when identifying stuttering in bilingual speakers. Even with monolingual speakers, the presence of stuttering should never be confirmed based solely on frequency, but with the frequency rates being so high in bilingual speakers, clinicians need to be extra careful not to be erroneously swayed by numbers that in monolingual speakers would be considered highly atypical as what is atypical for monolinguals may in fact be typical for bilinguals.

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Can Semantics Testing be used to Determine Language Impairment in Bilinguals?

As you know, there is a lack of appropriate standardized instruments to appropriately determine language impairment in bilingual children. We have made strides though in assessment Spanish-English bilinguals, which is the biggest bilingual group of kids here in the US especially in the area of morphosyntax. Work by BedoreRestrepo, Gutierrez-Clellen, demonstrates the kinds of errors that Spanish speaker and bilingual Spanish-English speakers with language impairment make. But, there isn’t quite as much in the area of semantics. Read the rest of this entry »

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Too bad 30 years ago

I participated in a twitter chat on Latino Early Childhood with @LatinoUSA and @spanglishbaby to talk #bilingualkids. Most participants, as expected, were bilingual Spanish-English speakers, proud to raise their children in a supporting bilingual environment. They emphasized the advantages of bilingualism: cognitive and socio-emotional skills, tolerance and openness, traditions and family. Plus the obvious: speaking two languages!
I was also happy to read that language use and opportunities to hear and speak Spanish seriously concern parents. They want to make sure they “resist” the period in which their own children appear to prefer English. They shared some nice anecdotes about children changing their minds as they get older, children becoming proud of their bilingualism. One mom said “¡No hay que tirar la toalla!”
Interestingly, one participant sent this tweet:
Curious to hear medical opinions. My cousin was told her son was beginning to stutter speaking both.
9:53 AM – 21 Jan 2015
I was surprised by, first, the desire to hear a medical opinion, and, second, by the hypothesis that bilingualism would cause a speech impairment. Other participants referred to bilingual research in their comments. This participant, however, wanted to hear from a medical doctor. Why would he assume a medical doctor knows more about bilingual development than experts? In addition, I sound naïve, but this is the first time I clearly read a worrisome admonition of bilingualism. I twitted this person to consult with a BILINGUAL speech-language pathologist. He responded the following:
Too bad 30 years ago that was the medical opinion. It was ridiculous.
10:53 AM – 21 Jan 2015
My heart sank. I cannot imagine how his cousin felt when she heard that doctor’s comment. I am so grateful to be part of a community and a profession that is changing, becoming more tolerant, and moving forward.

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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…

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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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