When working with bilingual children, it is a matter of course that one will need to translate from one language to another. Children who are English language learners may need instructions or directions translated so that they can know what to do. Curricula may need to be translated to maximize learning. Tests are also translated for ease of assessment of knowledge in a given domain. In the area of speech and language assessment however, translation is not the best option. Why can’t we just translate speech and language tests?
It seems obvious to many of us I know, but I still keep hearing reports of standardized tests of English language ability being translated to another language for speech-language assessment. In fact just yesterday I heard that this was going on for determination of language impairment. So, I’ll say it again!! Languages are constructed differently.
For example, if you compare English and Spanish, there are sounds in common and sounds unique to each language. Articulation tests should represent the sounds of each language. So, for example, the word “chair” might test initial “ch” and final “r” if you translate it to “silla” the sounds are different. A test would have to represent the sounds of the language it is targeting in the different positions in which those sounds are permitted. That’s what we did on the phonology subtest of the BESA.
Well, no kidding– of COURSE you wouldn’t translate an articulation test. But what about grammar?? We know that in English, children with language impairment have difficulties with verb tense. So, tests of grammar target past tense like, “the boy jumped into the lake.” Wouldn’t a translation be appropriate here? “El niño brinco al lago” is the translation, but past tense just isn’t that hard in Spanish! Neither are other verb tenses, so if you take a test of English grammar that has a bunch of items that are hard for children with language impairment and translate it, the Spanish version will be just too easy. What IS difficult for Spanish are articles, object clitics, gender.
Okay, okay but isn’t vocabulary the same?? NO IT ISN’T!!!! Word frequencies are different across languages. Some words are equally easy or difficult, but others are not. For example, mommy and mama are both acquired early. But, velocity is lower frequency than velocidad. Note the latest version of the EOWPVT-Bilingual Spanish edition and the EOWPVT-English edition– some words are different and in different order.
These differences in frequencies and in markers across languages are why different language versions of the same test (e.g., the Spanish and English CELF; the Spanish and English PLS) have different items. The BESA test also has different items in all the subtests (except pragmatics). This also means that you can’t translate the English versions of these tests to another language or translate the Spanish versions into English. The norms won’t work, and results will be different. I can’t think of any reason anyone would do this (but, I have heard of this being done– don’t be that person!)