Monday, April 18, 2011

Language Impairment in Bilingual Children: Part 2

Last year, Dr. Elizabeth D. Peña, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Texas at Austin, and her colleague, Dr. Lisa M. Bedore, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, agreed to write a series of posts on language disorders in bilingual children. For the last 10 years, Dr. Peña and Dr. Bedore have been researching language disorders in bilingual children, in order to come up with an accurate test to assess this problem. Such a test would help school pathologists to determine if a bilingual student does indeed have a true speech-language disorder, or if he or she is simply in a normal stage of development for learning two languages at once.

Their first article on Mommy Maestra discussed whether or not bilingualism can slow down language learning, as well as whether or not children with a language impairment can learn a second language.

Today they share their second article which helps parents of bilingual children to understand what language impairment is, what it looks like, and what to do if you suspect that your child has it.


Language Impairment in Bilingual Children
by Elizabeth D. Peña & Lisa M. Bedore
University of Texas at Austin

One of the challenges faced by speech-language pathologists is knowing if a child who is exposed to two languages has a language impairment. Children who have exposure to two languages or who know one language and are in the process of learning another may make errors that are like those that children with language delays or language impairment make. It’s hard to know whether these errors are indicative of language impairment or the normal influence of one language on another. Let’s start by quoting our friend and colleague Kathryn Kohnert that bilingualism does not cause language impairment.

What is language impairment?

Language impairment is a delay or deficit in language compared to age peers. Some language impairments occurs due to a health condition (e.g., hearing loss) or developmental disabilities (e.g., Down syndrome), or can be acquired (e.g., via a head injury). Some language impairments don’t have a known cause. Language impairment without an obvious cause occurs in about 7% of the population. There is no reason to believe that this percentage would be higher in bilingual children.

What does language impairment “look” like?

Children with language impairment can have difficulties in understanding or learning new vocabulary; they often make errors of grammar; and sometimes they have difficulties with the social aspects of language. Many children with language impairment make speech sound errors such as mispronouncing /r/ or leaving off parts of sound blends (tain instead of train). Remember, all children sometimes make these kinds of mistakes as they learn language and as adults we make language errors once in a while. But, the pattern of errors is a prominent feature of the language of someone who has language impairment. There are similarities and differences across languages in terms of children’s error patterns.

For example, there are similarities between languages in the kinds of vocabulary difficulties made by children with language impairment. Often, these children have delays in learning words or they don’t know words well. For example they may not know what words mean the same things or what categories of objects they relate to (e.g., bark is a sound a dog makes and the outer layer of a tree trunk. Signs of language impairment patterns often show up in grammar. The patterns of errors are different because the languages are different. In English for example, children have particular difficulty with verb tense. They will often delete verb tense markings “Every day he run” instead of “he runs” \or delete the past tense –ed as in “They walk__ to the store yesterday”. In contrast, errors in Spanish might include errors of agreement by gender, “El mesa” or number “La niñas” or omitting pronouns (e.g., le, la, los) as in “ __ dio a él un libro.”

What about bilinguals? When do we know if they have language impairment?

It is true that many of the error examples we give above are also characteristic of normal errors that children make in general when learning a first language and when learning a second language. What’s important to keep in mind is the degree of errors. If children are making more than 20-25% errors in their better language then it’s a sign of possible language impairment. Children with language impairment make errors in both their languages and like with monolinguals, the errors occur often—not just once in a while.

What should you do if you suspect that your child has language impairment?

You should contact a bilingual speech-language pathologist. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a great number of resources. Your school district can also do an evaluation of your child’s speech and language. In this regard, remember that there are relatively few bilingual speech-language pathologists and fewer still who have specialized training in bilingualism. So, ask what they know about bilingualism. If there’s no one with the training, ask for a consultant. Also, it’s important that your child be tested in both languages in making a determination of language delay or impairment. Do not let school personnel put off evaluation until your child learns more English. Early intervention will help get the best outcome for your child. If your child has language impairment, do not let anyone tell you that your child cannot become bilingual or that he or she cannot handle two languages. That’s simply not true.

To find out more about language impairment and bilingualism go to:


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