Assessing Multilingual Children

This month we are publishing Assessing Multilingual Children edited by Sharon Armon-Lotem, Jan de Jong and Natalia Meir. In this post, Sharon tells us how the book came together.

Assessing Multilingual ChildrenAt the turn of the millennium, I was intrigued by an observation of a preschool supervisor who told me: “Bilingual children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) are the worst.” I knew by then of the growing evidence for the advantages of bilingualism. I also realized that Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) often recommend to parents of bilingual children with SLI to use just one language with the child, often the societal language. As I was looking for scientific evidence for the supervisor’s claim and for the SLTs’ recommendation, the research community around me thought that I was nuts. I was warned that studying SLI (a term used for children showing primary difficulty in acquiring language in the absence of other delays) was difficult. Studying bilingualism was even more of a challenge, as the population is heterogeneous. Why complicate life and study bilingual SLI (later termed BiSLI)?

There were many reasons.

From the societal perspective, the identification of SLI in children growing up in bilingual contexts poses a major challenge for researchers, and has clear clinical and educational repercussions: How do we know if a child’s language difficulties are due to SLI or to insufficient exposure to the language being assessed?

From the scientific perspective, the reported similarity calls for an explanation. What is it in the language development of these two populations that, at times, makes them look indistinguishable? Is there a theoretical or even empirical basis to what that supervisor said, and to the SLTs’ recommendations?

I was not discouraged by the reactions, but it felt lonely. I knew there were a few researchers in Canada and the US who struggled with this problem and one research group in Scandinavia. This was not much. And then, in 2004, I received an email from Jan de Jong (my co-editor). He was planning a mini-workshop on BiSLI (the term was coined by the Amsterdam group). I was not alone in this endeavor for disentangling bilingualism and SLI anymore. Following that workshop, our group of researchers began meeting at conferences to continue the discussions over dinner or lunch and gradually grew into a small community.

This was when the idea of applying for a COST Action emerged. We wanted to have our own meetings focused on the study of BiSLI. COST (Cooperation in Science & Technology see www.cost.eu) was the perfect framework for it. COST supports networking and cooperation among researchers across Europe. It helps bring together scholars to jointly develop new initiatives. A COST Action is such a network. We were fortunate to get one to study BiSLI.

In 2009 COST Action IS0804 “Language Impairment in a Multilingual Society: Linguistics Patterns and the Road to Assessment” (www.bi-sli.org) started its meetings. Our community grew. We became friends bound by a joint quest. We wanted to have a better grasp of the source of the similarity and figure out how bilingualism impacts the manifestation of SLI. We aimed at providing SLTs with better diagnostic tools. The outcome of this quest, dubbed LITMUS– Language Impairment Testing in Multilingual Setting, is presented in this book.

And if you ask yourselves whether the supervisor was right? No, she was wrong! Bilingual children with SLI are not the worst. Bilingual children are often misdiagnosed as having language impairment and treated for what is bilingual typical language development. In fact numerous studies repeatedly show that children with BiSLI are not different from monolingual children with SLI in their linguistic performance. This further implies that there is no need to stop a child with BiSLI from using one of her languages as there is no evidence that bilingualism aggravates the impairment.

Following this book of tools, we further plan a book of findings to corroborate the above recommendations.

For further information about this book please see our website.

The Bilingual Bookshop

This month sees the opening of The Bilingual Bookshop, www.thebilingualbookshop.com. Cheryl Sánchez, Founder, describes the idea behind the enterprise, and how The Bilingual Bookshop is helping families across the UK.

Bilingual bookshop-logoBeing a teacher in a multilingual school and mummy to my gorgeous 2 year old daughter, who we are raising bilingually with English and Spanish, I have always been so disappointed with the lack of good quality foreign-language materials here in the UK to use with my classes and my family.

Until now, our summer trips to Spain have followed the ritual familiar to many bilingual families: spending hours traipsing round various book- and toy shops in the pursuit of foreign-language products for our children, to take back with us for the coming year. For those of us that do not travel ‘home’ regularly, we try to predict the interests and abilities of our children for the whole year ahead and then stuff our already overweight suitcases with as many books/CDs etc. as we can carry. And worst of all, if we don’t make it to the shops because we value the time spent with family and friends (after all, spending time with native speakers is the best way to encourage our child’s language development), we may settle for any old rubbish we can find in the local supermarket as long as it presents the target language in some way!

Let’s be clear here: I am not looking for resources for teaching languages such as flashcards and textbooks, nor am I looking to buy ‘whatever I can get my hands on’ – I am looking for authentic, good-quality products from well-established, reputable publishers and manufacturers in the country in question, so that my child has the same access to these materials as if she were living there.

Now, of course it is possible to gain access to these materials in certain circumstances: internet shopping is possible, but often requires an address in the foreign country and maybe even a credit card registered in that country. Even if the products are available to UK customers, the delivery times are often long and frustrating, and they do not meet the needs of a bilingual family as they are presented with no guidance on how to use them with a bilingual child.

A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to BilingualismThen there is the question of the use of readily-available dual-language books – those where both languages appear on the same page. Colin Baker, author of the successful Multilingual Matters publication A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, states that ‘Dual language books are not without controversy. First, children usually only read the story in one language in the book, and may ignore the other language. Having understood the story in one language, it may be tiresome to read the story in another language. The child ends up reading half the book rather than the whole book. Second, the presence of a majority language such as English tends to remove the desire to read in a minority language.’ As a professional in education, I echo this view, and am completely convinced that children need authentic materials from the foreign country: they represent that country’s literary culture, customs and traditions, and provide a complete immersion which is absolutely necessary if a child is to become truly bilingual. Translations often fail to capture the essence of a story or an idea and this is at the very heart of what we are encouraging when reading with our children.

I set up The Bilingual Bookshop to put an end to the crazy summer book-searching ritual. Working with excellent, well-known publishers and manufacturers across Europe, and using our years of experience in education, learning and language-development, we have selected a wide range of products to suit the specific needs and interests of bilingual children aged 0-12 years. We offer the staples of every native speaker’s bookshelf: atlases, picture dictionaries and information and activity books, which are particularly useful as they contain short, easily accessible snippets of language. We complement these products with a wide range of fiction titles for independent reading or, as is often the case with bilingual learners, for sharing with parents.

Bilingual bookshop-booksDespite the fact that we now offer these products in the UK, it remains a hard task for one to gauge which books will suit YOUR bilingual child. At The Bilingual Bookshop, we have responded to this by featuring guidance alongside our products to support parents in choosing appropriate materials, and our community pages feature a whole host of articles, tips and advice on raising bilingual children. Our inspirational family profiles provide an insight into the huge diversity in approaches to raising bilingual children, and our forums offer a means to ask questions and share experiences with others on the same journey.

To fill one’s home with language, and create a real bilingual home environment, is in my view one of the best ways to develop a bilingual family. Come over to The Bilingual Bookshop to see how we can support you in your family’s bilingual adventures – we’re sure you won’t be disappointed!

The Bilingual Bookshop (www.thebilingualbookshop.com) is open now!

The Assessment of Bilinguals

Issues in the Assessment of BilingualsThis month we are publishing Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals and Solutions for the Assessment of Bilinguals by Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole. Here, her former colleague Colin Baker writes about why the books are so important to the field.

Ginny Gathercole has the well earned reputation as an outstanding researcher on language. Meticulous as a top academic, she has gained considerable applause on both side of the Atlantic for innovative and creative research and writing that pushes forward boundaries by a large leap rather than a short jump. As editor of these two books, she has gathered an outstanding set of chapters, meticulously compiled, and created two books that will transform our understanding of the assessment of bilinguals and multilinguals.

Solutions for the Assessment of BilingualsThese books on assessment are sorely needed. There is a dearth of authoritative books on the assessment of bilinguals and multilinguals, and the two books uniquely help fill the enormous gap in our knowledge.  This topic is complex as it includes children and adults with different cognitive, academic and socio-economic profiles. Yet the books cover such complexity and variety by both raising the issues, and then suggesting solutions.

These two books are likely to become classics in the understanding of assessment in bilinguals and multilinguals. Every library should buy a copy of both books, as they will stand the test of time, place and importance.

Both books are available on our website with a special discount of 30%. Click here to find out all the details.

Growing Up with Languages

Addressing many of the common issues facing multilingual families, Claire Thomas’ new book Growing Up with Languages offers a unique insight into multilingual childhoods using the recollections of multilingual adults. Claire Thomas helps to run the Waltham Forest Bilingual Group who support families with bilingual children via regular monthly drop-in events, quarterly workshops and speaker events. Here, Claire talks about the advantages of multilingualism and how grown-up multilinguals reminisce about their multilingual childhoods.

This week I facilitated a workshop for parents in multilingual families in Guildford, UK. At the end of the event, one of the parents attending came up to me and said: “It’s just so nice to know that other people are struggling with the same issues”. This has been said to us again and again at workshops and it shows how isolated and unsupported parents (in the UK) feel in terms of multilingualism. They question whether they are making the right decisions about which languages to speak to their children, they worry that their children will be disadavantaged at school if they learn languages other than English at home and they worry whether what their children are doing or saying is normal or not. It is because of comments like this that I am motivated to continue supporting Waltham Forest Bilingual Group and it is why we worked on the project that has resulted in the publication of a book in the Multilingual Matters Parents’ and Teachers’ Guides series Growing Up with Languages: Reflections on Multilingual Childhoods.

The book is based on interviews with people (now adults) about their childhoods – particularly about the languages that they were exposed to. In carrying out and analysing these interviews, I learnt a great deal: about how some children retained languages with very low input, while others did not; about how adult to adult speech might be more important than parents sometimes think; about how children seem to pick up on subtle clues about how much a parent cares about a language. The whole idea for the book was prompted by the fact that a leading academic in this field, Colin Baker, had said at a talk he gave to our group that even if children didn’t always appreciate speaking more than one language when they were young, they would be grateful once they reached adulthood. This turned out to be true, whilst most interviewees would change one or two small things about their childhoods, everyone said that they were very glad to be bi- or multilingul. The phrase “it’s a gift” sums it up and was used by several people – I like it because gifts normally cost the giver something (as in this case) but are appreciated by the recipient.

For more information on the Waltham Forest Bilingual Group or to get in touch with Claire, please visit www.wfbilingual.org.uk.