The following is a transcript of the presentation video, edited for clarity.
Linguistic Diversity and Clinical Assessment
On the theme of bilingualness, bilingualism and variants my title has a primary and/specific language impairment, that’s because it seems that both terms are floating around these days and in the interest of respect for variation I decided to put those in my title, however I use the term SLI. So I’m going to start by sort of laying out the problems base when it comes to linguistic diversity and clinical assessment and then move on to my research.
In the Canadian context this is kind of a picture of what our linguistic diversity looks like. We have mostly English speakers with a substantial portion of French speakers, and a little slice of the pie there in the corner that sort of peachy-looking color is what we call non-official languages. That just means not French, not English. Now certainly the children who speak non-official languages is much bigger in metropolitan areas, but for the country as a whole this is what it looks like. Now when we’re talking about diversity this three-language wheel here doesn’t look like much but let’s take that little peach slice and blow it up and this is what we get. So we have in Canada well over 100 non-official languages and the other striking factor is that no single language dominates among the non-official languages. We have fairly big slices of people who speak Spanish, Cantonese, Punjabi, Urdu but it’s quite a lot of diversity.
Now in the United States of course what comes to people’s minds mostly is bilingualism means Spanish, but it’s not entirely the case here either. I mean it’s largely the case but not entirely the case. So, about 20% of ELL children here in the United States do not have Spanish as their first language. What I have in the bottom of this slide is a page from a very long document about language use and diversity in the United States and what I’ve got. In the first circled item there this is 5 to 17-year-olds in the United States and the purple bar is people who speak English in this age category. And the next bars are the other languages and this is looking at how well they speak English, those people from other language backgrounds. What struck me is this, if you look at the circle on the far side there is the, first of all there’s Spanish in its own category but then the other categories are enormous. One is just called Indo-European which is basically a huge swath of languages, everywhere from Bangladesh to Portugal, and then Asia and Pacific Island languages and then other languages. So essentially what it looks like here in the U.S. is that you have English. You have Spanish but you also have that big wheel of diversity as well.
When diversity meets assessment, this is where the problem is which as I’m sure everyone in this room is familiar with. At least in Canada, the numbers are growing of children with little or no English proficiency in preschool and kindergarten and Grade 1, and their diversity is increasing as well. But then at the same time there is a lot of pressure on early assessment for language and learning disabilities. They want to catch these kids as early as they can and so forth in trying to assess them before they even have learned the majority language is a problem. And so one of the things that I receive a lot of emails about is what I do with kids who are ELL, English Language Learners, when I’m supposed to assess them? And of course we know that the prevalence of over-identification for ELL children is problematic, and it’s persistent so of course it’s good news to hear that people are feeling cautious about this and trying to wonder what they do. One of the reasons why I’m interested SLI in particular is that this is one of the most problematic disorders to diagnose in a diverse population because the symptoms of this disorder lie in language itself largely, so it makes it much, much more complicated to figure out what ELL kids actually have SLI versus those that don’t. One of the things that has been sort of put forward as a strategy for dealing with ELL children in assessment is bilingual assessment.
Both ASHA and CASLPA put forward position papers that suggest bilingual assessment as the best practice for identification, and of course it makes sense. If you can test a child in both languages you get the full range of understanding of their linguistic competences and so on; however, bilingual assessment is rarely realistic. You need a bilingually-trained SLP or para-professional personnel. You need bilingual test materials or at least some kind of knowledge of what the child’s language other than English should look like. And for many languages there is absolutely zero information on even how typical children acquire that language, so you don’t have a lot to deal with. And so even though bilingual assessment is so clearly, logically, the best choice it is so rarely achieved. In fact as far as I’m concerned I’m a little worried that this is often held as the gold standard when so few people can actually do it.
So this raises the question, can you actually do an assessment and accurately identify ELL children if you’re just assessing them in English or mainly English? Is this possible? Okay, so this is going to be the question that hovers over this entire talk. I think that there are two things that can go into figuring out whether this is possible and so what I’m going to talk about is research that has come out of my lab that fits both of these categories. On the one hand if we’re going to look at mainly English-based assessment or really focusing on English in the assessment, we have to increase people’s knowledge of what typical ELL development is actually like. Clinicians, teachers, everyone has to have a schema in their head about what they expect these kids’ language development to look like. We have to know in particular what their performance is like on standardized tests, the sort of instruments that clinicians use, and we also have to know what are the characteristics of ELL children who actually do have SLI? How do they differ from typically-developing ELL children, and how do they differ from monolinguals with SLI? So that’s the knowledge side of things.
Another thing, another sort of stream that we’ve been working on in my lab is trying to develop some practical resources for assessment with the ELL kids so we’ve been working on a parent questionnaire on first-language development. We’ve been working on developing ELL norms for some tests and that second part is available on the CHESL website.
ELL Development and Performance on Standardized Tests
Cindy: A doctor. A doctor.
Cindy: Because I want to see someone inside of here. Because, because I really really want to.
[Six months later.]
Examiner: So what do you want to be when you grow up?
Cindy: A doctor.
Examiner: A doctor? Why do you want to be a doctor?
Cindy: Because I’m interested in [inaudible] a doctor, and I’m interested in the body, the things in your body.
So Cindy made a lot of progress. For those of you who were able to hear that she made a lot of progress over those six months. She sounds even quite, very English-speaking. She’s lost some of her foreign accent, but she is way below age expectations on all measures of grammar and the lexicon and so forth. And this was just an illustration about how ELL kids can sound really good early on and fool us when it really takes quite a long time to become a native speaker.
So how long does it really take? Well, depending on the study it can take up between three and seven years — that’s a very long span — for these children to catch up for oral language. And of course there are many individual difference factors that play a role in how fast or slow they will catch up. So what their first language, their L1 is, maternal education, their language learning aptitude, the richness of their English environment, et cetera, et cetera.
Another facet of their development that’s important is that they have what’s called profile effects. That means that they don’t catch up for all linguistic domains at the same time. They catch up faster for some linguistic domains than others.
Another point is that in terms of their long-term attainment. We just completed a longitudinal study in my lab and we found that they don’t become identical to native speakers in grammar for absolutely everything. There are some things where they retain a kind of a level that is a little bit more variable than what we see in native speakers.
How Long Does It Take?
So it takes a long time to learn English and there are certain individual variation factors like what your first language is, maternal education. There are even more of them but I don’t have time to talk about them so I’m going to move on to the second point I made in the summary slide which is about profile effects. So, profile effects basically mean there’s an asynchrony in development of different language and literacy skills and we know that ELLs just don’t come up to speed with monolinguals for the same things at the same time.
So, if we imagine, this is not real data, but if we imagine a set of data like this where supposed you’re testing a group of children, ELL children, at Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3 and you have a measure of phonology, a measure of the lexicon and a measure of syntax, and we’ve got zero to 100 there on there, so those are their scores. And if you imagine them sort of at the first year, they’re not scoring very well, the second year they’re at 50% and there’s the third year. But notice they’re going up evenly for all these different language subdomains. That’s not what happens. This is what happens. So, what you get is unevenness in terms of how fast or slow they catch up to monolingual norms. So, some aspects of language they trail behind more than others.
So let’s look at this with real data and this is from the 2011 book. This was a group of children I followed longitudinally and for one year, two years and three years of exposure to English, and this is the percentage of children in the sample who met monolingual norms on that test. So they just squeaked above that one standard deviation or higher, but I mean they weren’t exactly, had to be at monolingual mean. They just had to be within normal range. And for the TEGI it was, they met criteria score. So we had a narrative story grammar measure from the Edmonton Narrative Norms Instrument. We had vocabulary size with PPVT and grammatical morphemes was with the TEGI. And what you can see is that the bars are very uneven. So, for the dark bars, which is the narrative task, by about three years of exposure every one of these kids was actually in the normal range for story grammar. And the PPVT was in between but by three years 80 some percent of them met the monolingual normal range criteria. But for grammatical morphemes, tense morphemes you can see that they’re trailing behind. So they don’t acquire everything in synchrony and that’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking at some kind of test. You have to keep in mind what subdomain of language is this test measuring because that, you have to frame your expectations according to that.
Development of ELL with TD and ELL with SLI
So the second part of the sort of knowledge part of the research program is looking at comparing ELLs who have typical development to those who actually do have SLI, to see how one can tell them apart in terms of characteristics. So I’ve got another video for you to start of this section. You’re going to see a little boy who is first-language Cantonese. This is the first one and he has a specific language impairment and you’re going to see him at one round, and then you’re going to see him a year later and he’s taken the TEGI and he’s doing the third person singular s-probe.
And then the second kid is named David and he is a Spanish speaker and he is a typically-developing ELL, also taking the exact same probe. What I’m hoping that you can appreciate is that while both children progress in their English, the typically-developing child progresses from almost getting none of them right to really quickly and much more language but then the child who has SLI so that just to get an impression of the fact that kids who are ELL with SLI acquire English more slowly generally and they also have particular trouble with verb inflection.
[Video Clip: SLI, L1 Cantonese. Round 1.]
Examiner: Tell me what a baseball player does?
Wilson: Play a ball
Examiner: He …
Wilson: Play a ball
Examiner: Here’s a nurse. Tell me what a nurse does? She …
Examiner: Here’s an astronaut. Tell me what an astronaut does. You don’t know? Look at this. What’s this? What do you think he does? You don’t know?
[Video Clip: SLI, L1 Cantonese. Round 3.]
Examiner: Here’s a baseball player. Tell me what a baseball player does.
Wilson: To hit the ball. To win the game.
Examiner: Yeah. So can you say a whole sentence for me?
Wilson: He hit the ball to try to win.
Examiner: So here’s a nurse. Tell me what a nurse does.
Wilson: To [inaudible] a bandaid for the people so the people aren’t hurt.
Examiner: Yeah, so can you say the whole sentence for me?
Wilson: She got a bandaid to not let the people hurt.
Examiner: So here’s an astronaut. Tell me what an astronaut does.
Wilson: Put the helmet.
Examiner: Yeah, so can you say a whole sentence for me?
Wilson: He put a helmet.
[Video Clip: TD, L1 Spanish. Round 1.]
Examiner: Here’s a baseball player. Tell me what a baseball player does.
David: He play baseball.
Examiner: Here’s a nurse. Tell me what a nurse does?
David: He put a bandaid in there.
Examiner: Here’s an astronaut. Tell me what an astronaut does.
David: He fly a spaceship up, up, up, up.
[Video Clip: TD, L1 Spanish. Round 3.]
Examiner: So here’s a baseball player. Tell me what a baseball does.
David: The baseball player hits the ball, and he hits the other baseball player’s head.
Examiner: Here’s a nurse. Tell me what a nurse does.
David: The nurse puts a bandage on you, and then you put the other bandage on her.
Examiner: So here’s an astronaut. Tell me what an astronaut does.
David: The astronaut goes out of Canada and then he crashes to a planet and the name is Pluto.
Resources for Assessment with ELL Children
Now I don’t have very much time left, and it’s the end of the afternoon so I’m going to whip through just some highlights here. This is just a few things that our lab has done to try to create resources that SLPs can use in assessment.
So for this summary I cooked up a kind of a diagram for what kind of strategies one might use and first of all, one of the first things one must do is find out how much exposure to English a child has had, especially how much in a structured program, not home exposure or overhearing the television because there’s lot of data to show that that doesn’t really amount to all that much unless they’re exposed to English at home from a fluent speaker of English.
You need to find out what their first language development history and current abilities in the first language are because nobody has a language impairment in just one language.
I’ve got a middle bar there about prioritizing some tests that are less biased versus tests that are perhaps more biased but I’m going to skip that because I’m not a big fan of that. I don’t think you should use monolingual norms ever.
And the last box is using alternatives to monolingual norm referencing is the way to go, our research shows. And by that I mean compare ELL children to other ELL children.
So, the Alberta Language Development Questionnaire is an instrument that we’ve developed that you can download from the CHESL website and use and we’ve got a paper about its properties of sensitivity and specificity. Essentially what we found is that it had good specificity but not good enough sensitivity to be used alone which is not surprising. It’s just a questionnaire after all.
So then we went on to thinking well what if we combined this first language questionnaire with some English language measures would putting the two together and using ELL norms actually work to discriminate children with language impairment from those with typical development? These were the identification properties of this particular combination of English language tests and the first language questionnaire. So we got over 90% specificity and sensitivity using that combination but the crucial thing was is that you’re comparing ELL kids to other ELL kids. And I won’t go through my little example here but all of this is on the CHESL website where you can enter in scores in a calculator and it will compare that one child’s scores to the scores from our sample that we used in our research so you can find out where that kid lies in terms of what is typical or atypical in ELL development. So we thought that might be useful so it’s available and you can check it out if you’re interested.
Questions and Discussion
What I’ve been noticing with younger children, especially if they’re not exposed to English, is it’s really difficult to assess them as an ELL learner. When they go to preschool the speech therapist does not really know if this child needs extra support or services. Do you think a parent questionnaire is enough, especially since I know from my culture that usually parents think that children will grow out of it so they’re not really concerned.
Well, certainly I think a parent questionnaire is probably the only thing you can do ,and it is worth doing because it does seem to indicate, in our research and we had a very diverse sample, obviously not every culture on the planet or language on the planet, but we had a lot of different languages represented and most of our questions aren’t really about parent concern, but parent judgement about their child’s abilities and early milestones and the child’s activity preferences were particularly good at picking out kids who did not have typical development. So, obviously it’s not perfect to do something like that, and I feel a little nervous saying anything about this because I’m not actually a clinician. But I think that in the absence of being able to access any other linguistic information a questionnaire is at least one thing that you can do.
If you can get a resource person like a cultural broker interpreter — that’s what we do in my district — who speaks that child’s language and is from that culture and who is trained to do this because that’s a big factor, because they’ve got to know what to look for and not judge and all that. And maybe they can observe the child and talk to the child and let whether they think that child’s language abilities are age-appropriate. Putting those two together, it’s better than nothing right?
You were talking a lot about the time of exposure to L2 acquisition for English in that sense. Do you have any insight or ideas on whether the language input for L1 actually plays a role in the acquisition of L2, the second language? I feel like sometimes families, they’ll start to speak English and kind of drop their L1 thinking it would enhance the language acquisition.
My question kind of builds on that one too and it was to see if you’ve investigated linguistic attitudes towards the L1 or even L2, parents give, if that affected their rate of acquisition?
I had a question about the balance of the bilinguals. So you presented the data here in terms of length of exposure, and I was wondering if you had any variation or measurement in terms of the percentage of exposure that children are getting either at home or if they have L1 exposure in the community and if that differs across the different languages that you study?
Certainly. Length of exposure to English was one measure that we used. We also had a percentage of proportion of languages used at home. So it was the languages the child uses with interlocutors and the language interlocutors use with the child on a rating scale of English ‘Always’ mother tongue ‘Never’ and some point in between. We also had a mother tongue and English richness measure. So these are measures of quality, book reading and quality activities that take place in each of the languages. So we had three separate kinds of measures. They are interrelated, but they’re measuring slightly different things.
So one of the interesting things that I just mentioned is that the rich first language environment doesn’t take away from English. If they’re using English a lot at home it doesn’t seem to impact their English positively or negatively or at all, so that’s a reason not to use English. English richness however significantly impacts their English, and we find this consistently with various types of language outcome measures, with vocabulary, grammar even story-telling. So richness of the English environment which is more of a quality than a quantity measure matters immensely. And one of my grad students is working on Mandarin as a heritage language acquisition, and she finds mother tongue richness in Mandarin also influences various measures of a kid’s Mandarin development. So really the story it’s quality input, native speaker input quality type that you, vocabulary building, grammar building types of exposure really, really matter.
I wonder if you could say a little bit about adults. So, we know that adult L2 learners and heritage learners also seem to struggle with morphosyntax as well. I mean what we usually say about the difference between kids and adults is that the kids catch up to native like proficiency and quickly, and the adults maybe never do, probably never do, and if they do it’s certainly not quick. But you’re saying that even the typically-developing ELLs don’t — or not as quick as we thought and maybe they never get to 100% in some domains. So I wonder what do you think is the difference if anything between kids and adults?
University of Alberta. (2015). Child English as a Second Language Resource (CHESL) Centre. Available at http://www.linguistics.ualberta.ca/CHESL_Centre.aspx