Diagnosing speech impairment in English language learners is one of the biggest challenges speech-language pathologists face.  How do you know if errors result from an influence from the child’s native language or whether they result from speech impairment?

If you are like most speech-language pathologists, you don’t feel very confident identifying speech impairment in English language learners.

Graph of SLP confidence serving diverse students

Fewer than 10% of speech-language pathologists rate themselves as “Very Qualified” to serve English language learners.  Even when we combine the categories of “Somewhat Qualified” and “Very Qualified,” fewer than 30% of speech-language pathologists fall into those two categories combined.  That leaves more than 70% of us who could use some guidance to better understand language speech development in English language learners.

We break it down into 3 simple steps

First we look at the sounds that are shared between two languages and the sounds that are unique to each language.  If errors occur on the sounds in the middle of the Venn diagram, we might be concerned.  If errors occur only on sounds unique to English, we attribute those errors to native language influence.

Next, we look at the phonotactic constraints.  For example, if a child omits a sound at the end of a word and we know that the sound exists in both languages, we next need to determine whether the sound can occur at the end of words in the child’s native language.  If it doesn’t, we can attribute the error to native language influence.

Finally, we have to consider the developmental acquisition of sounds (click here for our e-book on developmental information).  If the sound is a later developing sound that typically occurs around age 6 or 7, we are not going to be concerned for a 3-year-old.

So, there you have it.  1 – 2 – 3!  That was the “in a nutshell” version of understanding speech development in English language learners.  If you want to dive into this in more detail, watch our course:  Difference or Disorder?  Speech Development in English Language Learners.  Share this with your students and colleagues to help them build confidence in working with our increasingly diverse population.

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