What do you tell a parent from a non English speaking background whose child speaks only the home language?
To refer or not to refer to a speech pathologist?
Here are some questions you can ask your patient/clients/families to help you decipher if a referral is appropriate:
- Do you have concerns about your child's language development in ______ (insert native language here).
- When did your child start babbling?
- When did your child first say his/her first words?
- Are you concerned about their pronunciation in ______ (insert native language here).
- Are you concerned only about their English language acquisition?
- Does your child use gestures?
- Does your child respond to his/her name?
- Does your child understand simple 1 or 2 step instructions in your native language?
- Does your child try to interact with other children in non-verbal ways?
The MOST important thing is to establish if the child is experiencing delays in their native language and also if they are using gestures. Slow pick up of English is typically not a good enough reason for referring if they are "okay" in their native language.
Here is a famous research done awhile ago to demonstrate just how long it takes to be a proficient user of a language:
"There are different timelines for learning social and academic language. Under ideal conditions, it takes the average second-language learner two years to acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) . BICS involves the context-embedded, everyday language that occurs between conversational partners. On the other hand, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) , or the context-reduced language of academics, takes five to seven years under ideal conditions to develop to a level commensurate with that of native speakers." (Quote taken from the American Speech and Hearing Association) (For more information on this, please look up Professor Cummins' work.
So, it can take up to 5-7 years to develop a language level similar to that of native speakers! And this is just in the typically developing population. It will take longer for our language delayed children. This is just how it is.
Children with language delays will be delayed whether they work with 1 language or multiple languages. Giving them 1 less language to 'learn' will not make them less delayed.
What if the parent says "my child has a language delay, what language do I speak to them?"
1. Please do not tell them to stop speaking their home language and switch to English only.
Bilingualism does not cause language delays.
Even a child with the most severe case of autism and language ability can learn two languages and can know when to switch languages when given time and opportunity. I have seen this time and time again in my clients. It is pretty amazing what children can innately do when growing up in a bilingual environment.
2. Please, DO tell them to continue speaking in their native language to their child. Their child will pick up English through osmosis and through structured teaching when they enter school. It will happen. With support from their speech pathologist, continue to encourage language development in both languages. This is crucial. It is also crucial to search for a speech pathologist who 1. believes in bilingualism and 2. will work with the child's family to promote two languages in the child.
For many practitioners who are monolingual, this might sound crazy. Learning two languages is the hardest thing in the world! That's because we are thinking about it from an adult, monolingual point of view. I will be writing more about bilingualism and giving you more research to support my claims that it is okay for families to continue speaking in their home language to their child.
Please click here to download an interview sheet for parents to decipher if a referral is necessary.