Saturday 1 December 2012

Language therapy or language tuition?

The titles Speech-language Therapist and Language Tutor name different job descriptions, different qualifications and, therefore, different professional competencies: speech-language therapists (or speech-language pathologists, in alternative terminology) do therapy, language tutors do tuition.

In practice, however, the distinct services that these professionals provide are sometimes not so distinct. One reason might be the resilient confusion between two meanings of the word language, in English and other languages. Both job descriptions include this word, although language therapists (let’s call them so) deal with overall language ability, whereas language tutors deal with specific languages. Another reason stems from both specialists being called upon to intervene in a child’s life because there is a problem, or a suspected problem: language therapy addresses problems which affect all of the child’s languages (e.g. language delay), whereas language tuition solves problems with specific languages (e.g. everyday or specialised exposure) which bear no relation to the child’s other languages.

Interestingly, the merger of professional competencies works one-way only: you probably wouldn’t dream of entrusting your child’s possible language disability to a qualified language tutor, whereas you do expect qualified language therapists to address deficiencies in particular languages. I’ve had reports of therapy-for-tuition services of this kind from a number of countries in Africa and Asia, although I doubt that they are restricted to these parts of the world. I would be very interested to know whether the same situation holds elsewhere.

Let me try to work out why this situation arises at all. Children naturally acquire the language uses around them, from elders and/or peers. These uses may not match what parents or schoolteachers deem to be desirable ones, where “desirable” means ‘standard’. In matters of language, the word “standard”, in turn, means ‘good’, whereby non-standard uses of language are ‘bad’, that is, in need of remediation. By the same reasoning which recommends clinical assistance for bad health, cure for bad language should also be sought from a qualified clinician.

I mean the word cure quite literally. An increasing number of typical child language features have also come to merge with features of disordered development, drawing on current standards of normality which are as usable, in practice, as current standards of physical beauty. Almost 70 years ago, in her Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy depicting life in the English countryside in the 1880’s, Flora Thompson saw it coming :

“The general health of the hamlet was excellent. The healthy, open-air life and the abundance of coarse but wholesome food must have been largely responsible for that; but lack of imagination may also have played a part. Such people at that time did not look for or expect illness, and there were not as many patent medicine advertisements then as now to teach them to search for symptoms of minor ailments in themselves.”

Any label which remotely hints at clinical disruption, tagged on to a child, will drive zealous caregivers to appeal to those whose job descriptions likewise include clinical labels.

Zealous teachers stand for the lion’s share of such moves, despite cautionary reports exemplified by Jeff MacSwan and Kellie Rolstad’s ‘How language proficiency tests mislead us about ability: implications for English language learner placement in special education’. The article reviews evidence that the bulk of referrals of young language learners to special education, in the US, has nothing to do with the learners, and all to do with assessment policies and poorly designed language tests. This is the case elsewhere around the world, as also reported in my book Multilingual Norms.

Misguided referrals of this kind count as false positives, where typical multilingual behaviour is mistaken for language disorder. In time, cumulative practices “identifying” multilinguals as disordered become standard practices, in yet another interesting meaning of the word “standard”: as Brian Goldstein quotes in a previous post: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Accepted habits boost reluctance to revise mindsets and practices, with two consequences: overworked language therapists, squandering time and resources tuned to atypicality on typically developing children; and blindness to false negatives, which mistake disorder for typical multilingual behaviour and thus fail to identify disordered multilingualism.

A third consequence, perhaps the direst of all, is the stigma which sticks to the children who get singled out by means of special labels. Not just because “special” is Correct-Speak for ‘not-quite-up-to-par’, but principally because labels go on deciding our opportunities for us.

Next time, I’ll deal with the bit that I missed, in this post, in the label speech-language therapist.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Speech and language. Wednesday 12th December 2012.


  1. In the school where I work we have language therapists. I have noticed more children with speech disorders in the Anglophone world than in the Hispanic one. One reason could be the stark contrast between spelling and sound patterns in English.

    Great post. It's been a while since I popped by. Obrigado! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  2. Obrigada, Cubano! You got me a bit worried there: Portuguese has very irregular spelling-sound correlations, too – and what to say of French, “la langue des calembours” par excellence?? Or Mandarin?

    The thing is that speech-language disorder can be detected before children are exposed to literacy. So can lack of input in particular languages, which is not a disorder, unless people take the view that the condition of one of the languages of a multilingual is the condition of the whole linguistic competence of that multilingual – which is unfortunately the case, all too often!

    Screening services in (pre)schools are invaluable: language therapists can tell disorder from “rust”, as it were, and decide on appropriate intervention for each kind of problem.

    Incidentally, I’ve had it confirmed, in a Twitter exchange about this post, that language therapists are employed as language tutors also in the USA. So I’m learning from everyone’s feedback! Thanks again!


  3. What I meant was that in Spanish, for instance, words tend to be pronounced in the same way they're written. Which might not mean anything to an English-speaking person but it does make a heck of a difference to a Spanish-speaking one. Especially when they begin to learn a new language. From what I understand Mandarin is a tonal language (my brother-in-law's wife speaks it and she speaks Cantonese as well). Therefore a word might have different meanings based on the pitch and pronunciation. Which sounds barmy to me, but I would love to give it a try. :-)

    Keep up the good work!

    Greetings from London.

  4. Therefore a word might have different meanings based on the pitch of pronunciation.It is a very important post for those people ho wants to learn foreign language.

    Online Language Study

  5. sumaya: We may even want to start talking about different words, in fact, if we take meaning to be a defining criterion of what a “word” is?


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