Immigrant children and communication disorders

The challenges of acquiring English while maintaining the heritage language
aaandrea,, CC0 1.0
aaandrea,, CC0 1.0

The United States is home to a large and diverse population of immigrants. Today, 18.7 million children under the age of 18 – or 25 percent of that age group – are the children of immigrants. It is estimated that by 2050, the population of immigrant-origin children will reach 33 percent.

An increase in the number of immigrants and children of immigrants over the past few decades has led to a significant increase in the number of dual-language learners (DLLs) in American public schools. The number of DLL children between the ages of 5 and 17 rose from 10 to 21 percent of the school population from 1980 to 2009.

DLLs are children who are learning two or more languages and whose first language may still be developing at the time when they are learning English or entering school. Roughly 460 different languages are spoken in homes throughout the United States. Forty-four percent of immigrant parents are English-language learners, and 21 percent of all children speak a language other than English at home.

Acquiring the English language and simultaneously maintaining their heritage language is a complex challenge for immigrant families. Another layer of difficulty is added when immigrant-origin children are struggling with a communication disorder. It appears that language impairment affects the same proportion of monolingual and bilingual children. A communication disorder may present itself in both languages that a bilingual child is acquiring.

Access to the home language is vital for children’s social, cognitive, academic, and vocational success. Support for the home language has also been shown to have positive effects on students’ mastery of English as well as their school readiness. Policymakers, clinicians, educators, and other practitioners therefore need to respond to the needs of immigrant-origin families in ways that are considerate of their immigration, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.

More and more studies are looking at ways to foster the language skills of bilingual children with communication disorders. It is a recurring problem, however, that those providing services for bilingual children recommend that parents speak only one language (mainly English in the U.S.) with their children. There is no evidence to support that recommendation, and it particularly affects immigrant families and heritage language speakers. Indeed, it can lead to the loss of the heritage language.

“Policymakers, clinicians, educators, and other practitioners need to respond to the needs of immigrant-origin families in ways that are considerate of their immigration, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.”

Aside from the recommendation to speak only one language, another issue in the delivery of bilingual services is that English remains the primary language used during assessments and interventions, especially in predominantly English-speaking countries like the United States. Bilingual children should be assessed in both their first and second language so that a distinction can be made between a language difference and a language disorder – that is, it is important to determine whether a child’s language development and attainment are simply different from the norm, or whether a communication disorder is truly present.

The assessment process should be conducted using culturally and linguistically appropriate assessment materials, tools, and methods in order to gather accurate information about the child’s linguistic strengths and limitations.

Issues, evidence, and future directions

There is no empirical support for the claim that a bilingual approach to speech-language intervention causes confusion in either of the languages. Interventions for language-minority children should seek to help the child acquire both the home language and the majority language. Interventions might take either a bilingual or a cross-linguistic approach, depending on the linguistic skills and needs of the child.

Using a bilingual approach, the clinician identifies and addresses patterns of errors that occur in both languages. In contrast, a cross-linguistic approach addresses errors and deficits observed in one language. The bilingual and cross-linguistic approaches can be used either independently or in conjunction with one another, depending on which is most likely to produce the best outcome for the individual learner.

Studies have demonstrated that bilingual speech therapy and support for the home language produce positive outcomes. However, more research is needed to test the effectiveness of specific interventions and assess their benefits for children from various backgrounds.

“There is no empirical support for the claim that a bilingual approach to speech-language intervention causes confusion in either of the languages.”

It is also important to gather information across ethnic groups about immigrant parents’ perceptions of communication disorders and treatments designed to foster children’s communication skills. Such data will provide guidance on how clinicians and educators can best serve these families in a manner that is considerate of their cultural as well as linguistic backgrounds.

Studies should also distinguish between the bilingual children who are themselves “newcomers” and second-generation children of immigrants. Newcomer children may have spent a portion of their education in another country, were perhaps taught in a language other than the majority language, and may have had limited exposure to standard English prior to entering school. Second-generation children may face the challenge of maintaining their heritage language and concurrently gaining access to their ethnic community.

While the needs of these two groups of bilingual children will often overlap, factors such as immigration history and parental background will likely vary. These factors are important, as they can affect the child’s experience in school, the parents’ outlook on communication disorders, and the services and resources families seek out.

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