New Research on Typical and Atypical Child Language Development and Assessment

This month we published Crosslinguistic Encounters in Language Acquisition edited by Elena Babatsouli, David Ingram and Nicole Müller. In this post the editors explain how the book came about and discuss its contribution to the field.

David, Nicole and I got together for the first time in 2015 at the International Symposium on Monolingual and Bilingual Speech that took place in Chania on the island of Crete. In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that we ended up editing this book on the acquisition and assessment of typical (normal) and atypical (disordered) child speech crosslinguistically, a theme that represents combined aspects of our research interests.

The crosslinguistic encounters in research undertaken by the volume contribute to the general effort in the field of linguistics to gather data-based evidence that ultimately guides the delineation of normative patterns in the acquisition of languages/dialects in all their likely contexts (e.g. monolingual, bilingual, multilingual, normal, disordered) on a worldwide scale. The book itself contributes towards the establishment of common assessment tools and methods that account for variation (e.g. typological, individual differences) during child language development and, as such, it is an advocate of all such endeavors. This approach will ultimately permit reliable and comprehensive documentation of what is normative and non-normative in child language acquisition in the world that will, in turn, guide clinical methods and intervention techniques.

The book’s aim was to bring together current developments characteristic of its theme, with an eye for the ‘under-represented’ – be that a language per se, a specific disorder, an assessment tool designed for a single language or valid for use across languages/dialects, a linguistic construct, a sociolinguistic context, or an innovative approach that extends existing knowledge. Readers will agree that we have met this goal, notwithstanding the length limitations that a publication of this type affords.

While working in this direction, we discovered that there was a downside to our vantage point, namely that the book turned out to be an amalgam of studies well within its intended span, but not necessarily of immediate interest in its entirety to every single language researcher contributing to these subfields. Given that recognition of shortcomings triggers progress, there is hope that the wide scope of the current edited volume may spark new thought and generate novelty across corresponding subfields in the study of child language and its assessment, where both typical and atypical development are concerned.

We are thankful to the editors of the book series at Multilingual Matters for hosting this, and also to all contributing authors, language therapists, as well as the children and families involved.

Elena Babatsouli, David Ingram, Nicole Müller

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Assessing Multilingual Children edited by Sharon Armon-Lotem, Jan de Jong and Natalia Meir.

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.