Okay, so I’m going to bitch and moan. Skip this if you don’t want to hear it, but I can’t help myself. Every time that I start to think that people out there are more aware of language development, bilingualism, bilingual language impairment and so on, I get confirmation that no, that’s not the case. Don’t be stupid. That’s all I ask.
Some terms and assumptions that I see clinicians make have to do with terms, what they mean, and how they are interpreted. Other assumptions I see clinicians make have to do with what research says and how that applies to making clinical decisions.
Primary language—in the U.S. literature this means first language, not better language, FIRST language. It may be that the second language is better, dominant, or even the ONLY language now. Primary language in this usage does not mean better or dominant language. However, in some of the literature (Canada for example) primary means better. In this context the primary language does not mean first. So, this is a problem because primary can have different meanings depending on how and where someone was trained. That’s why it’s best to define our terms, and to do so every time (or just skip the use of primary and use terms like first when that’s what we mean, or better if that’s the intent).
First/primary language could be one place where misunderstandings occur, but I also think that these turn into wrong assumptions. Just because someone learned one language first or had early exposure to a language does not mean that it’s the better language. The reason I’m harping on this is that clinicians may assume that exposure to another language first means that that language is stronger and that it has a continued impact on the second language. This may be the case, but it can be wrong just as easily. If someone had early exposure to one language and then the context switched to another language early in life probably that language is not going to continue to influence performance in the second language.
I think we also learned that early on babies learn the sounds of their language. In early development they can distinguish sound contrasts in the language they hear as well as other languages. Later (before they’re a year old) babies lose the ability to perceive sound contrasts in other languages but continue to tell the differences between pairs of sounds in the language they are exposed to. It’s an important skill that helps babies build a language and to hone in on their own language. But, it doesn’t mean that they can’t learn another language after this age or that they are “stuck” with the sound system of the language they were exposed to early on. This is just wrong—and stupid! And we wouldn’t have many bilinguals is this was the case would we??
Dominant language—usually this means the better language or the language that is relatively stronger. It does not mean however that everything this person knows they can express in this language. They may know some things that they can only express in the weaker language. Don’t be stupid here, test in both, not just the dominant language.