“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” (Thomas Paine)
In most countries, bilingualism is well-established. That is not the case in the United States. However, because of demographic changes, bilingualism in the United States is slowly but surely becoming the default condition… the underlying representation… the new normal (Goldstein, 2012). In the U.S., it is estimated that 10.9 million (21%) 5- to 17-year-olds speak a language other than English at home, and 2.7 million (5%) speak English with difficulty (Language Use, U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007). At the same time, the amount of research related to bilingual children has increased significantly. Much of that research is translational in that it aids practitioners in providing reliable and valid clinical services to bilingual children.
Despite the rapid increase in research related to bilinguals, clinical practice has not always changed as a necessary and important by-product of that research (Kritikos, 2003). I witnessed this disconnect recently while attending the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), in November this year. At the convention, I witnessed clinicians questioning clinical advice that has been current for 20 years. It was clear to me that these individuals did not seem to have received these messages. Here are some messages that I believe need to be delivered.
- Stop telling bilingual parents to speak only one language to their children. There is no evidence that speaking only one language or practicing the one parent-one language dichotomy improves language skills or staves off a speech and language disorder. Even parents who report that they use the one parent-one language rule do not do so in practice (Lanza 2004).
- Stop believing that being bilingual causes and/or exacerbates a speech or language disorder. As Kohnert says, “A disorder in bilinguals is not caused by bilingualism or cured by monolingualism” (Kohnert, 2007, p. 105). It is now reasonable to conclude that in the acquisition of two languages, bilingual children do not appear to be “remarkably delayed nor remarkably advanced” relative to monolingual children (Nicoladis and Genesee, 1997, p. 264).
- Stop using family members as interpreters/translators (Langdon and Cheng, 2002). Family members are not trained in this area and are clearly biased when it comes to their own family members. It also places them in a precarious position in which they are not likely to be comfortable.
- Stop trying to calculate an omnibus measure of language dominance. The notion of dominance has been criticized on both theoretical and methodological grounds (e.g., MacSwan and Rolstad, 2006). Moreover, its utility relative to speech and language skills is equivocal. Ball, Müller, and Munro (2001) found that Welsh-dominant children (aged 2;6-5;0) acquired the Welsh trill earlier than their peers who were English-dominant. However, Law and So (2006) found that both Cantonese-dominant and Putonghua-dominant children (2;6-4;11) acquired Cantonese phonology first. This is not to say that variables such as language history, language use, and language proficiency are not important variables to consider. They are. What should be dismissed, however, is determining language dominance based on a standardized test and then triaging clinical services based on its results.
- Stop assessing speech and language skills in only one language. The bilingual’s languages are not mirror images of each other. Skills are often distributed across the two languages. The same language skills can be easy in one language but difficult in the other (Peña, Bedore, and Rappazzo, 2003). The distributed nature of language skills in bilinguals necessitates examining speech and language skills in each of the child’s languages.
- Stop waiting 2-3 years before assessing a bilingual child for a possible speech and language disorder. The belief by many practitioners is that a child needs to have years of experience in the second language before even thinking about assessing their speech and language skills bilingually. That viewpoint runs counter to the mounting evidence that such children acquire their language skills fairly quickly. For example, Paradis (2007) found that after 21 months of exposure to English, sequential bilinguals exhibited skills within the normal range of monolinguals in the areas of morphology (40%), receptive vocabulary (65%), and story grammar (90%). In a seminar titled English Phonological Skills of English Language Learners, presented at the ASHA convention in New Orleans in November 2009, Gilhool, Goldstein, Burrows, and Paradis found that after an average of 8 months of exposure to English, sequential bilinguals (ages 4;6-6;9) averaged consonant accuracy of 90%.
- Stop comparing the speech and language skills of bilinguals to those of monolinguals. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one (Grosjean, 1989). Thus, although their skills will be similar to monolinguals, they will not be identical. Further, in a seminar titled Lifelong Bilingualism: Linguistic Costs, Cognitive Benefits, and Long-Term Consequences, presented at the ASHA convention in Philadelphia in November 2010, Bialystok indicated that both languages of bilinguals are active when using one of them, even in strongly monolingual contexts. What this means is that bilinguals do not sublimate the other language, even if the speaking community is exclusively or largely monolingual. Both languages are always active to one degree or another. Thus, from a clinical perspective, this view argues for comparing monolinguals to monolinguals and bilinguals to bilinguals.
- Stop treating those with speech or language disorders in only one language. To again quote Kohnert (2007, pp. 143-144), “Being ‘monolingual’ in a bilingual family or community exacerbates a weakness, turning a disability into a handicap.” If, as practitioners, our focus is to develop a bilingual speaker, then services for those with speech and language disorders necessarily have to be conducted in both languages. Intervention in only one language is not an option.
Finally, “Stop thinking in terms of limitations and start thinking in terms of possibilities.” (Terry Josephson)
Brian A. Goldstein is Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences and Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
© Brian A. Goldstein 2011
Next post: Language geniuses and language dunces. Wednesday 14th December 2011.