From time to time (should be more often) I”m reminded of why I do the work I do. It’s so easy to get caught up with thinking about getting out the next paper, the details of the job, getting ready for presentations, teaching and so on that I loose sight of what I’m doing ultimately. What I aim to do is to make a difference in the every day lives of kids who are bilingual.
Today I got an e-mail from a bilingual SLP who had read a post written by Lisa Bedore and me in the Asha Leader, in which we argue that bilingual children need to be tested in both languages because they so often have “mixed” dominance. In my e-mail, the SLP wanted to know what measure we used to measure dominance and stated that in her district county officials wanted “score and numbers” in order to determine dominance. It’s so great when I learn someone is actually reading this work and trying to apply it in practice. This is exactly what keeps me going, especially on days that I’m feeling like I’m putting out this stuff and no one cares. Anyway, scores and numbers. Scores and numbers can and do help us, but we have to get the right ones and use them in the right way. What we’re finding with bilingual preschoolers (and also with older kids) is that a lot of them who are “in the middle” of the bilingual continuum have mixed dominance. What is mixed dominance? We call it mixed when they’re better in one language in one domain (e.g., better in Spanish syntax) but better in another language in the other domain (e.g., better in English semantics). In one study, we found that about 2/3s of the bilingual children we tested (who were in the middle of the bilingual continuum) had “mixed dominance.” So, the numbers and scores here suggest that cut offs needs to reflect the points at which we see/don’t see mixed scores. These findings are consistent with what others have reported in the literature.
We also see this in our risk and language measures studies. Findings seem to show that kids who use and hear each of their two languages at least 35% of the time are likely to have mixed dominance. They don’t all, but many many do. It also means that even if it appears that children are dominant in one language it doesn’t mean they’re dominant in that language in everything. That’s why we go broader to 35%. Those kids who use Spanish 35% of the time and English 65% of the time may look dominant in English, but they still know a lot of Spanish, and we may miss important diagnostic information if we ignore their Spanish.
I know many of the questions coming from administrations have to do with controlling costs. It takes twice a long to test a child in two languages than in one. If we test all children with at least 35% exposure to each language in both then we’re testing a lot more kids in both than if we have a cut off closer to 50%. But, if we over-diagnose because we ignore the other language then the cost of doing intervention with children that don’t need it is even higher.