Living in America, we are lucky to be exposed to many different cultures and languages. But do we know how living in this melting pot affects speech and language?
Many theorists believe that bilinguals store language in their brains differently than monolinguals. Why? Because in a bilingual mind, one language is being silenced while the brain receives and searches for information in the other language. This is why we need to be mindful when speaking with bilingual individuals because they need the extra time to translate into their brains. Once we can understand that language is obtained differently in bilingual individuals, we can also see how it might affect their overall development.
It is no secret that how children learn speech and language is through the auditory system. We bombard children with different sounds within words, also known as phonemes. Bilingual children acquire language in the same way, but they are now learning two languages instead of one. Many languages have different phonemes that are not included in other languages. For example, the Chinese language does not have a phoneme equivalent to English vocalic /r/. This is why many Chinese immigrants learning English will often emulate the phonological process of gliding (i.e., wabbit vs. rabbit). When we are treating individuals who are bilingual it is important to be aware of what phonemes are in their first and/or preferred language and to not mark them incorrectly when administering evaluations. We cannot fault a child for not being able to say a sound when they were never exposed to it in the first place!
Being bombarded with all these different phonemes in different languages can be daunting for a child. Sometimes we see something called the “silent period.” Some bilingual children will cease verbal productions while they are trying to internalize and store all these different phonemes into their own unique phonological lexicon. It is important to encourage parents and inform them of the silent period. What may seem like a significant delay could be the child trying to differentiate between two different languages. Aside from the quiet period, a common quality seen within bilingual individuals is code-switching. Code-switching is when you produce a sentence containing both languages. It is essential to be aware of code-switching, especially in unfamiliar languages. What might seem like an unintelligible production of a word could actually be another word in another language!
Do you still feel the bilingual child is delayed? This is where our assessments come in. Scoring assessments is different when testing bilingual children versus monolingual children. Assessments must always be administered in their first/highly exposed language because it will give us the most valid results. Aside from testing in the first language, we must also be aware of the possible phonological, morphological, semantic, and syntactical differences. For example, in English, the modifier comes before the noun (i.e., Pretty Girl). In Spanish, the modifier follows the noun (i.e., Muchacha Linda). As therapists, we cannot mark the child as incorrect if they have a translative difference navigating between their first language and second language. It is important to take these considerations when evaluating bilingual children. The most important thing to remember is difference vs. disorder. If the child can name animals and follow directions in their first language but cannot in the second language, it would be classified as a language difference. If the child demonstrates delays in BOTH languages, it would be classified as a language disorder.
Finally, what are the cultural implications when treating bilingual children? Many psychologists believe that children desire to please authoritative figures in the initial stages of life and then switch to please peer figures during the time of puberty. Bilingual children may feel a stronger cultural connection and desire to speak in their first language at home with their families because they have an innate psychological desire to please immediate and all authoritative figures in their lives. However, as a bilingual child begins to assimilate and identify with another culture (aka their second language), they may start to show a preference for the language more commonly used by their peers as they mature. It is important to always to validate both cultures and languages. As therapists, we want to be sure to try and treat in both languages to maintain cultural competency and to continue to encourage developing brains to create and maintain these neurological pathways during a time of high neural plasticity. The old saying is true, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” Be sure to encourage both languages within sessions and do not be afraid to ask parents to translate. Most bilingual individuals and families are extremely appreciative and receptive to their therapists, taking an interest in their native tongue. Attempting to submerge yourself in your client’s culture and language will increase overall trust between the two parties and is a great way to build initial rapport.
Cultural competency is one of the core values, as stated by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Cultural competency is something that will continue to develop as cultural and social norms continue to shift. Try to implement both languages in your sessions this week; you may learn a new word or two!