Can a child demonstrate a speech impairment in one language but not the other? My immediate response to this is, “No.” That said, let me tell you about a student I tested last week. Meet Miguel. Miguel is a 7-year, 3-month-old child whose native language is Spanish. He spoke only Spanish until he started school at age 3 and it continues to be the language he hears and uses most of the time. Since starting school, Miguel has received academic instruction in English with some Spanish support, and the family has continued to use Spanish in the home. His mother reported that Miguel speaks Spanish more often than English. Based on a detailed language history, I estimated that he uses Spanish 60% of the time and English 40% of the time.
Testing Both Languages for Speech Impairment
Formal and informal language testing in both languages indicated that Miguel’s language skills were within normal limits in both languages. I should note here that when a student’s language skills fall within normal limits in one language but not the other, it indicates normal language skills with low proficiency in the other language. While it is also the case that one cannot have a speech impairment in one language only, it is possible for a student to have a speech impairment that impacts one language but not the other. Huh? How does that work?
Difference or Disorder?
Let’s take a look at the Venn diagrams that we use throughout our book Difference or Disorder? Understanding Speech and Language Development in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. On the left side we have sounds that are unique to the first language. On the right side we have sounds that are unique to the second language. And in the middle we have sounds that are shared by both languages. When we are doing bilingual assessments, we spend most of our time focused on the shared sounds, which we expect our bilingual students to produce (depending on their age) and the sounds unique to the second language. When we only see errors on sounds unique to the second language, we can attribute those errors to the acquisition of the second language. We don’t usually spend much time focusing on the sounds that are unique to the child’s native language. Today we will spend time on the left side of our Venn diagram.
Let’s take a look at formal testing. I used the BAPA (Bilingual Articulation and Phonology Assessment), which is a very cool speech articulation assessment tool that we developed in collaboration with Smarty Ears. You mark errors as you go and it calculates everything for you behind the scenes. It’s even normed! There is an English version of this tool that just came out as well—it’s called iTAP (Test of Articulation and Phonology).
Here are Miguel’s standard scores:
- Spanish Standard Score on the BAPA: 75
- English Standard Score on the BAPA: 110
This is a big difference. But when we take a closer look, it really makes sense. Miguel struggled with sounds that exist in Spanish that do not exist in English. In particular, the trilled and flap /r/ of Spanish and any cluster with the flap /r/. The English /r/ is produced very differently than the Spanish /r/ and this student did not have any difficulty with the English rhotic /r/. So, going back to our Venn diagram for Spanish, take a look at where Miguel’s errors fell.
Here are his errors in Spanish: (not written in IPA)
He also made errors on one sound in English:
Miguel made the same errors in connected speech that he made in single words. The next thing I looked at was stimulability. In other words, can he make these sounds if I help him. I used visual and verbal cues to teach the production of the sounds. Here is how Miguel did with extra support:
- flap r 2/8
- trilled r 1/5
- flap /r/ clusters 4/12
- unvoiced th (English) 4/7
Stimulability was low for the Spanish sounds but he did make improvement. For the unvoiced “th” of English, stimulabiity was better. He was able to produce it in 4 out of 7 attempts and then he used it spontaneously in connected speech. Such rapid improvement on the English sound, suggests a difference rather than a disorder. His low stimulability for the sounds of his native language suggests an impairment.
So, how did I answer the question, “Can a student have a speech impairment in one language only?”
I still said, “No,” but a student can have a speech impairment that impacts only one language. Here is how I talked about Miguel’s speech impairment in his report.
Miguel demonstrated articulation skills that were impaired and impacted his Spanish speech production. Miguel achieved a standard score of 75 in Spanish and 110 in English on the BAPA. It is not typical for a speech impairment to impact only one language, however, in Miguel’s case, the sounds he struggled to produce were sounds that exist in Spanish and not in English. He demonstrated errors with the trilled /r/ of Spanish, the flap /r/ of Spanish, and clusters that included the flap /r/. Stimulability with visual cues and models was low. He produced the flap /r/ in 2 of 8 opportunities, the trilled /r/ in 1 of 5 opportunities, and flap /r/ clusters in 4 of 12 opportunities. Intelligibility in connected speech in Spanish was 95%. Children Miguel’s age are typically fully intelligible in connected speech. In English, Miguel demonstrated difficulty with the unvoiced /th/ sound, which is a sound that does not exist in Spanish. This is a common error for children from a Spanish-speaking background who are acquiring English as their second language. Stimulability for the production of the unvoiced /th/ was good. He produced it correctly in 4 of 7 opportunities when provided with a model and a visual cue. Miguel was fully intelligible in English.
The next obvious question is, “Does he qualify for speech services in the schools?” We’ll save that one for another blog post. We would love to hear about your fascinating case studies too!