Two readers recently reached out to me to ask about how to determine which language to use with their students. In this post, I am combining the questions and scenarios shared with me by these two readers. One asked about testing and the other asked about intervention. What their questions had in common were these words: “to determine which language…”

Here are the questions that the readers asked about which language to use:

“Can a proficiency test be used to determine which language to use in a speech-language evaluation?”

“Is there a screener to determine which language to use for speech therapy?”

I’ll add that both of the people who asked these questions asked them because they were being pushed to pick a single language by their employer, not because they thought this was the right approach. In fact, one of these SLPs, Kimberly, who sat on her state’s ethics board, walked away from her job because she was not able to convince her employer that this is not the ethical way to approach an assessment.

The Bilingual is Not Two Monolinguals

So, let’s break this down. I’m going to jump back to 1989 for a moment to share one of the most widely cited articles on bilingualism ever. Can you guess it? It’s Francois Grosjean’s article in Brain and Language titled Neurolinguists, Beware! The Bilingual is Not Two Monolinguals in One Person.

I’ll give you the quick summary here but if you want to read the whole paper, click the title. Dr. Grosjean points out some of the shortcomings of a monolingual approach to bilingualism, one of which is that the use of monolingual tests of the bilingual’s languages rarely takes into account the bilingual’s “DIFFERENTIAL NEEDS for the two languages or the bilingual’s DIFFERENTIAL SOCIAL FUNCTIONS of these languages” (note: those caps were Grosjean’s).

He goes on to say that, “Many monolingual tests are quite inappropriate to evaluate the skills of bilinguals.” Thus, even if we do decide that we are not going to select a single language of testing, we need to consider the child’s use of the two languages.

Considering Cross-Linguistic Influence In Evaluations and Intervention

Another very important point that Grosjean makes is that a monolingual approach does not account for the natural contact between a bilingual’s two languages. The languages influence each other and those influences are often viewed as mistakes when a monolingual approach is taken, when in reality, they are simply normal interactions between languages.

These interactions can be code-switching (switching from one language to another mid-sentence or mid-conversation), use of flexible word order when that is a feature of one language but not the other, or simply the use of one sound for another for phonemes that exist in one language but not the other.

The point is, it is very normal for the two languages of a bilingual to influence each other. That’s part of what Grosjean calls a “unique and specific speaker-hearer,” which is a beautiful thing. We’re considering both languages in our testing process.

What is the Role of Language Proficiency Screeners?

I want to dive a little deeper into the issue that resulted in an awesome SLP leaving her school-based job. It had to do with the use of the Language Proficiency Screener of the Woodcock-Johnson-IV Tests of Oral Language. The process in her district (and, as she was told, the entire state she had just moved to) was that the bilingual school psychologist administered the Woodcock-Johnson IV Tests of Oral Language and made a determination about language dominance.

In the particular case the SLP shared, the School Psychologist administered a cluster comprised of Picture Vocabulary and Oral Comprehension and determined based on that cluster that the student “is more proficient in English than in Spanish.” The student scored a 3 in English and a 2 in Spanish. She went on to say that if the student “is referred for further evaluations, he can be evaluated in English.” She picked a single language of testing for the SLP to use.

Why Vocabulary Tests Shouldn’t be used to Determine Which Language to Use for Testing

There are so many things wrong with this situation, I barely know where to begin. Should we start with Picture Vocabulary tests? I think we all know that there is loads of evidence that vocabulary tests and parent income/socio-economic status/education levels are closely tied together. We also know that kids learn different vocabulary words in different languages because they use the two languages in different settings (remember the “DIFFERENTIAL NEEDS for the two languages or the bilingual’s DIFFERENTIAL SOCIAL FUNCTIONS of these languages”?).

If a child from a Spanish-speaking home is in an English setting in school, they’re likely going to learn more academic vocabulary in English. Thus, while they might score slightly higher on an English vocabulary test, it doesn’t mean that we can simply disregard information from their other language and select a single language of testing? Absolutely not! Considering both languages in the process is critical!

Anaya and colleagues published a great article on bilingual assessment and vocabulary. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, check out their article, “Conceptual Score and Classification Accuracy of Vocabulary Testing in Bilingual Children.”

Next, why is a school psychologist making determinations about how a speech-language pathologist evaluates a student. These are different fields that do different things.

Next, and this is a big one, that test that the school psychologist used was not designed to make a determination about what language a speech-language evaluation should be conducted in. The publishers of the tool give 9 intended uses for their test and determining the language of the speech-language evaluation is NOT one of them.

9 Uses of a Language Proficiency Screener, per the publisher:

The primary uses of the WMLS-III include: 

  • (a) determining English and/or Spanish language proficienc
  • (b) determining oral language dominance of bilingual (English and Spanish) subjects
  • (c) monitoring growth or change in English and/or Spanish language ability
  • (d) determining eligibility for bilingual education/ESL services
  • (e) assessing readiness of English language learners for English-only instruction; (f) determining eligibility for accelerated or gifted and talented programs
  • (g) assisting in educational planning
  • (h) evaluating program effectiveness
  • (i) describing students’ language characteristics in research studies

Using Language Proficiency Tests to Determine a Single Language for an Evaluation is Wrong

Note that not a single one of the publisher’s intended uses is to determine which language to use in testing. In other words, this is a MISUSE of the test. It is also a HUGE DISSERVICE BILINGUAL STUDENTS (those caps are mine).

We Cannot Identify the Presence of a Language Disorder in a Bilingual without Considering both Languages

The reality is that when we conduct speech-language assessment of bilingual children, we cannot do it without considering BOTH languages.

Yes, there is the situation where a child demonstrates language skills that are within normal limits in one language. From that we can deduce that they do not have a language disorder. We should always be able to speak to the referral concerns though. And yes, there is evidence in the research that for children whose current language exposure (input and output) is less than 30% in a given language, that language does not usually inform diagnostic decisions. (I wrote a whole post on that here.) BUT, if a child scores below average in one language, we must explore their other language before we can make a confident diagnostic decision. 

“A speech-language evaluation for a bilingual student that only considers one language would be like an eye doctor only examining one eye.”

How do We Determine Which Language to Use for Intervention?

Okay, now it’s time to address the second question, “Is there a screener to determine which language to use for speech therapy?”

You can guess my answer to this, can’t you? I mean, what would that look like? Let’s go back to Grosjean’s emphasis on considering “DIFFERENTIAL NEEDS for the two languages or the bilingual’s DIFFERENTIAL SOCIAL FUNCTIONS of these languages.” Is there a point at which a bilingual child no longer needs both languages? Remember, these kids are not elective bilinguals who have chosen to learn an extra language out of the blue. These are circumstantial bilinguals whose environment requires them to communicate in two different languages. 

Want to get more information from families about when they use each language? You can use the Language Proficiency Form we created for Evalubox to quickly determine language exposure and use in the child’s different settings. This will help you better understand their differential needs for each of their languages.

What Does a Student Need to Be Successful Academically?

Thinking about this from a therapeutic standpoint, we need to consider the setting and their needs in those settings. Speech therapy in a school setting needs to support a student’s academic success. The question to ask then is, are both of the child’s languages needed for him to be academically successful? If so, we need to support that student in both languages.

Are there ways we can support a bilingual student when we only speak one of their languages?

Absolutely. We do our homework to understand the similarities and differences between their home and school languages (check out the book, Difference or Disorder? and visit the World Language Library). We focus on things that exist in both languages. Are plurals marked the same way in the two languages? Is the sentence structure the same in both languages? Does a certain sound they need support with exist in both languages?

What if the child is struggling with something that is unique to their home language and I don’t speak that language? 

If it’s possible to pull a bilingual SLP in for support in the cases where children are having difficulty with something unique to their home language, that’s a great approach. Working with an interpreter is another way to go about that. And don’t forget the family! Most parents are eager to support their child’s speech and language development. You can work together to create word lists to address a specific sound or to identify grammatical structures that the family can practice with their child. 

Move From a Monolingual Mindset to a Bilingual Mindset

To sum this all up, I want to say—let’s move away from a monolingual mindset that asks, “How do I determine which language I should use?” and instead move toward a bilingual mindset that asks, “When, where, and what content should we focus on in each language?”

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