I have worked as a bilingual speech-language pathologist for more than 20 years now. I started learning Spanish when I was 21 years old—a junior in college. I loved it. I ended up adding a major in Spanish literature. When I finished my program, I could talk about Don Quixote and El Cid all day long but if you asked me for directions, I would rely heavily on my English skills and gestures to convey my message.
I found the field of bilingual speech-language pathology
As I was finishing college, I started planning my next step. I found the field of bilingual speech-language pathology that married my love of Spanish, lingustics, and making a difference in people’s lives, and knew it was what I wanted to do. I realized though, that my Spanish skills were not where I wanted them to be. So I took a train south to Oaxaca, Mexico, where I spent a month in an intensive language program and another four months working as a teacher. I gradually understood more and more of what people said to me. I also became more and more comfortable expressing myself in Spanish.
I made mistakes
After I returned from Mexico I dove into a Master’s program in Bilingual Speech Language Pathology at the University of Texas at Austin. Even after five months in Mexico, I still often struggled to find the words I wanted to say in Spanish. I needed a whole new vocabulary to talk about speech therapy things in Spanish. Over the years I’ve mastered that for the most part but I still make mistakes and find times when I have to describe what I am talking about when I don’t know the name of it. The subjunctive mood in Spanish has always tripped me up a bit because there isn’t an exact equivalent in English. Recently, I was working with a teenager and I used the indicative instead of the subjunctive. My student kindly corrected me, and we moved on, continuing to build her ability to sequence ideas into a cohesive story.
Why am I sharing this story?
Well, I’m perplexed by contradictory messages coming from our field. On the one hand, I read, hear about, and experience first hand the critical shortage of speech-language pathologists. Edgar & Rosa (2007) described a “paucity of qualified speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to serve students in the public school setting. Roth (2013) stated, “…it may seem like qualified SLPs are disappearing, and no wonder, because the SLP shortage is affecting every school and every school administrator to some degree or another.” And then there’s the extremely limited pool of bilingual SLPs in our field (Roberts, 2008; Guiberson & Atkins, 2012).
Limits on SLPs from other language backgrounds
On the other hand, I see a push to put limits on speech language pathologists from other language backgrounds because of errors they make in English.
On August 6, 2018 I received an email from ASHA Headlines with the subject line: Peer Review: Definition and Description of Language Proficiency
It started like this:
In response to concerns from state licensing boards about the English proficiency skills of internationally trained professionals providing clinical services in the US, the International Issues Board (IIB) submitted a request in 2014 to the Council for Clinical Certification in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CFCC), to increase international applicants’ English proficiency passing scores for ASHA Certification.
So let me get this straight…
We have a critical shortage of Speech-Language Pathologists…only 3% of speech-language pathologists are bilingual, and we are going to spend our energy on limiting certification of international applicants?
I have some ideas for supporting bilingual speech-language pathologists:
- Let’s pair these bilingual speech-language pathologists with other SLPs in the field to support them in learning the field-specific vocabulary in our field.
- Let’s decipher the enormous list of school acronyms for them.
- Let’s set up practice modules for IEP meetings, parent feedback sessions, intervention sessions,…
- Let’s overlook grammatical errors that result from language influence. (For 20 years people have overlooked an occasional grammatical error I make in Spanish. And not only that, the families I work with tell me they are grateful for my support of their children and for my knowledge about how to help them improve their speech and language skills.)
I’ll make one last point then get off my soap box. Research show us that at least 95% of speech-language pathologists work with someone from another language background. Perhaps when it comes to diversity in our field, we can all support each other in one way or another.
Edgar, D. L. & Rosa-Lugo, L. I. (2007). The critical shortage of speech-language pathologists in the public school setting: Features of the work environment that affect recruitment and retention. LSHSS, 38, 31-46.
Guiberson, M., & Atkins, J. (2012). Speech-language pathologists’ preparation, practices, and perspectives on serving culturally and linguistically diverse children. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 33(3), 169-180.
Roberts, Dana Marie, ” The Challenges of Bilingual Speech-Language Therapy: Perspectives from Speech-Language Pathologists” (2008). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 539.