Wednesday 28 February 2018

Multilingual ‘deficiencies’ or assessment deficiencies?

The Roman poet Juvenal is credited with asking Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, sometimes translated as ‘Who guards the guardians?’ The question doesn’t boil down to simple word play: guardians do need their own guards, as much as teachers need teachers, or doctors doctors. Assessments need assessments, too. Unfortunately, where assessment of linguistic communicative abilities is concerned, particularly among multilingual children, the consensus about X needing X appears to break down.

Communication takes place through the use of a shared code (e.g. a language), by means of code-bound rules that enable coding and decoding of messages between a sender and a receiver, respectively. It follows that if the code is not shared, there will be either no communication or deficient communication, which would seem to be a pretty basic inference to draw. Assessment tool designers, however, apparently believe instead that any code that happens to be familiar to them is, or should be, shared by any potential test-takers.

The rationale behind communicative ability tests in common use in schools and speech-language clinics hinges on two assumptions: first, that languages amount to sets of well-defined, discrete items and rules such as sounds, words, or word order which, being quantifiable, will provide a straightforward and statistically reliable measure of the test-taker’s ‘command’ over them; and second, that languages are clear-cut entities enjoying a stable, homogeneous life of their own which is independent from the uses that their users make of them. These two assumptions make it clear that language proficiency tests assess linguistic mechanics, not linguistic use, and explain the belief that any language is, or should be, shared by all of its users, in the same way.

Communicative assessment tools test single languages, those that are normed to represent the official (or national, or mainstream, or ‘standard’, or ‘good’) variety of the language in use in the official institutions where assessment happens to take place. Being designed to evaluate ideal monolingual uses of language, they naturally fail to account for real-life multilingual communication abilities. It is therefore small wonder that multilingual children’s test scores remain under (monolingual) par, resulting in suspected or confirmed diagnoses of communicative ‘deficiency’, first in school and then in clinic, to where schoolchildren are referred and where the same traditional assessment instruments are used. The deficiency lies instead in inappropriate use of assessment tools among multilingual populations – a deficiency that extends to assessment of users of non-‘standard’ monolingual varieties.

Current assessments of communication abilities among multilingual children safeguard a mythical ‘integrity’ of the languages in which assessment necessarily takes place, to the detriment of language users.

Image: EducationMattersMag, via MCERA

In Plato’s Republic, the guardians of Kallipolis should educate their souls in, among other virtues, wisdom, courage, and justice, because it is always better to be just than unjust. The same applies, to my mind, to those who should assess assessment tools, to ensure that they represent a fair assessment of what they purport to assess. This is no word play either. I take the lack of scrutiny in academic and clinical assessment matters to constitute a violation of human rights, and I contributed an article on this topic to the special edition of the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Assessment of communication abilities in multilingual children: Language rights or human rights? As I say in the conclusion to the article, “Ensuring that children can exercise their right to communicate […] remains with those who can speak for them”.

© MCF 2018

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira (2018). Assessment of communication abilities in multilingual children: Language rights or human rights? International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20 (1), 166-169. DOI: 10.1080/17549507.2018.1392607


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