What language should I start in?

A question that comes up frequently among bilingual speech-language pathologists who are testing children in two languages is what language to start testing in. There aren’t really clear guidelines. Some people advocate starting in the child’s home language; others suggest starting in the child’s stronger language; still others say that SLPs should follow the child’s lead and start in the language the child feels most comfortable in. We’ve tested many many kids over the last few years in English and Spanish. Sometimes we start in English other times we start in Spanish, and we do this regardless of what the child’s better or home language is. The reason we do this is so that we aren’t favoring one language over the other. For research purposes this makes sense because we’re interested in group data and we really don’t know what each child’s best language is. But, for clinical testing we are interested in individual performance and we want to get the best performance from kids as possible– if not the best performance at least information that is representative of their capabilities. And it’s for this reason that the question comes up. Maybe it does matter what language we start in.

In a 2005 study we (Bedore, Peña, Garcia & Cortez) observed that bilingual children rarely switched between Spanish and English when they were being tested. What was especially interesting is that they tended to switch to English when tested in Spanish compared to switching to Spanish when tested in English. The limited English to Spanish testing occurred despite the fact that the kids could do the items in Spanish (but not English) and they knew that the examiners were bilingual. We speculated that the children preferred to use English because of social and academic pressure (real or imagined) to learn and use English in school. Since school was the main language of instruction and we tested them at their schools we argued that they perceived the appropriate language to use during testing to be English.

But, I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t something more to it. In a newer, on-going study of what set of markers best differentiate children with and without language impairment funded by the NIH, we used language sampling in as part of the battery of measures. The language sampling procedures focused on narratives and included dynamic assessment. We first elicited stories in Spanish, then English, conducted dynamic assessment in English, and then collected a follow-up story in Spanish. One of our students noticed that sometimes children had a hard time shifting to Spanish after doing an intervention session and posttest story in English– even when Spanish appeared to be their stronger language. This was highly idiosyncratic and our follow-up analyses didn’t show a group pattern, but we wondered about what might be going on.

I think we can get some insight from work that Kroll and colleagues have done looking at language selection, activation, and inhibition in bilingual processing.  In a 2009 study, Linck, Kroll, & Sunderman compared performance of two groups of English-speaking college students taking Spanish as a second language at the intermediate level. One group was living in Spain, learning Spanish in an immersion experience. The other group was taking Spanish in the U.S. When they were tested, they reported similar levels of Spanish-language knowledge and responded similarly to a translation task.

What’s interesting in thinking about what language to test first are the group x language results on a fluency task. In this task, students were asked to generate as many items as they could in response to a category (e.g., animals). They did this task in both languages. Both groups generated more English items than Spanish items. This was because they knew more English. The students who were immersed in Spanish generated more items in Spanish compared to the classroom learners. This result is likely due to the fact of immersion. Even though their levels of Spanish was similar the immersion group seemed to have more access to Spanish. What’s really interesting is that the immersion group also generated fewer items in English compared to the classroom learning group. Immersion in Spanish to some extent inhibited their access to English.

I wonder if that’s part of what happens to these bilingual kids when we try to test them in their home language. They have been inhibiting their home language and seem to prefer to respond in English. They sometimes have a difficult time switching to the home language– even if it’s their better language.

What to do? Going back to the original question, what language should we start testing in? I think that I would start in the home language, but spend some time warming up via conversation and play in the home language before starting to test. I think that then I would allow switching to English, but persist in responding in home language. When testing in English, I would again allow switching to the home language (depending of course on the task). I think that we want to give kids every opportunity do demonstrate the language skills they have. For bilingual children, we need to be able to do this in both languages. This could be a way to do that.


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  1. Receptive and Expressive Semantics: Does Bilingual Experience Matter? « 2 Languages 2 Worlds

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