Tips for Assessing Bilingual Children As a Monolingual SLP

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There are an estimated 337 different languages used (spoken, written, and/or signed) in the United States. Even bilingual speech-language pathologists will encounter situations in which the client’s primary language is unknown.  There are standardized, evidence-based tests for the Spanish-English population. But what about Russian, Vietnamese, German and so on? What do you do?

Here are some key practices that can aid any SLP evaluating a child who speaks an unfamiliar language:

  • Conduct a family/caregiver interview, which can help minimize cultural and linguistic biases. Understanding how others in the family view the client’s communication gives insight into expectations and the possibility for deficits. Is the client able to meet these expectations? If not, why and how? Do they differ significantly from others in that communication circle?
  • Use an interpreter. Meet with the interpreter prior to any contact with the family to review the process, terminology, and what you want him or her to do. If possible, use someone outside the child’s family and circle of friends to reduce the possibility of bias. Interpreters can provide key information, such as, “It was very hard for me to understand him,” or, “He doesn’t use prepositions correctly.” Using such information, along with additional testing measures can help support or negate a true disorder.
  • Use highly pragmatic tests if formal/standardized testing is not available in the child’s primary language. These tests will help determine the client’s grasp of conversational language, which is the first building block to more complex language. The same is true in monolinguals—that the first language we learn is social in nature. We e acquire more complex understanding and use of language by building on social language. You cannot report standard scores when using standardized testing not normed for that language. You can use the information as qualitative data to support the rest of your findings. I personally like administering the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS), now a second edition, for this population. It is relatively easy and quick to administer.
  • Employ Dynamic Assessment, which  involves pretest of a skill, an intervention to address that skill, and then a post-test to determine if there was progress. This method of assessment can be useful for evaluating multilingual individuals. If intense intervention is needed, this can indicate  impairment. Review the ASHA website for more information on Dynamic Assessment.
  • Include a communication sample in any communication evaluation. How does the child use language? It often includes either a conversation or story retell. See Portland State University’s website, Multicultural Topics in Communication Sciences & Disorders, for links to typical English when influenced by different languages.

Things to be mindful of regarding typical bilingual language development include the following.

  • The silent period occurs when a client is first exposed to a new language. Typically this period ends between six months to a year. Some common misidentifications in this phase are Autism Spectrum Disorder, Selective Mutism, and language delay. It has also been noted that with a significant change in school, family situation and the like can trigger some children to revert to the silent period. This is why family and caregiver interviewing is so essential to diagnosing a language disorder.
  • Bilingual development is recognized in two stages. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), also known as “conversational language,” typically takes two to three years to acquire. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), also known as “academic language,” takes five to seven years to develop. Some common misidentifications during these phrases are Language Disorder and Specific Learning Disability. Be careful that the years refer to a 12-month period of constant and consistent exposure. Our academic calendars are typically nine months, so it may take more academic years to acquire conversational and academic language.

Remember when evaluating any child that there is variety among the “same” cultures and languages.
What additional information do you, or would you, include in an evaluation?

Leisha Vogl, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist with Sensible Speech-Language Pathology, LLC, in Salem, Oregon. She can be reached at leisha@sensiblespeech.com.