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.

Advances in the Study of Bilingualism

This month we are publishing Advances in the Study of Bilingualism edited by Enlli Môn Thomas and Ineke Mennen. We asked the editors a few questions to find out more…

Advances in the Study of BilingualismWhat makes your book unique?

Advances in the Study of Bilingualism attempts to integrate the latest approaches to the study of bilingualism from three different disciplines: linguistics, psychology, and education. As the field of bilingualism continues to expand alongside current advances in scientific research, a growing number of researchers are addressing the same kinds of questions, but from different perspectives. Bringing these perspectives together is important and allows us to better understand the factors that underlie various aspects of bilingualism.

The novelty of this volume, therefore, is that it takes a broad approach to addressing a narrow focus rather than a narrow approach to addressing a broad set of questions. More specifically, each chapter shares a main focus, namely an exploration of the nature of the relationship between the two languages of a bilingual, and each chapter addresses this issue from different perspectives. Our book integrates a variety of methodological approaches within three core fields of study (Linguistics, Psychology, and Education), which, together, allow us to build a more holistic understanding of the phenomena. The more we understand about various aspects of the relationship between a bilingual’s two systems from various disciplinary perspectives, using different methodological tools, the more we understand how the bilingual brain works, and the more we understand how the two languages of a bilingual co-exist and interact within a single conversation and in their daily lives, the closer we are to uncovering one of the most miraculous aspects of the human brain.

How did you first become interested in bilingualism research?

I have always been interested in typical and atypical language development in bilinguals, presumably because I grew up bilingual, and in an environment where bilingualism was not necessarily seen as the ‘norm’, and where my L1 (Welsh) was not always supported. The fact that Welsh exists alongside a more dominant language – English – means that any research I conduct on Welsh-speakers is essentially research on bilingualism. My research interests in bilingualism are thus broad, including psycholinguistic approaches to understanding bilingualism in acquisition, issues in bilingual education, and issues relating to bilingual language planning and minority language use.

What inspired you to put this volume together? How did this volume come about?

The chapters presented in this volume showcase some of the world-class research conducted as part of the programme of the ESRC Centre for Research on Bilingualism in Theory and Practice, Bangor University, Wales (UK). Since its establishment in 2007, the Centre continued to grow and flourish and quickly established itself as an internationally recognised centre of excellence for research in bilingualism. Due to its world-class status, the Centre attracted a continuous flow of excellent visiting researchers, including some of the most well regarded research leaders in the field. Their visits led to constructive and stimulating discussions, and helped set ideas for the future research agenda in the field.

Given the global interest in the Centre and its research, we felt it timely to bring together, in one single volume, a taste of the Centre’s work. The chapters presented in this volume offer a sample of the large-scale research conducted at the Centre. These chapters explore the relationship between bilinguals’ two languages from different perspectives: the relationship between the grammatical and semantic features of each language in bilingual processing; the relationship between the two languages in production (in terms of sound, words and grammar); and the concurrent use of two languages as a pedagogical tool. In doing so, this book integrates a variety of methodological approaches within three core fields of study (Linguistics, Psychology, and Education), which, together, allow us to build a more holistic understanding of the phenomena.

What other books on bilingualism have you enjoyed recently?

A critical aspect of language research has to do with its application to the real world. What can practitioners and educators learn from our research? How can our results be used to improve the lives of others? Such issues have recently been explored in terms of the appropriate assessment of bilinguals’ language abilities in a series of two impressive volumes, edited by Professor Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole, the first entitled Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals and the second entitled Solutions to the Assessment of Bilinguals. Whilst researchers and practitioners have known for a long time that bilinguals are often disadvantaged when it comes to measurements of linguistic abilities, particularly within the context of an accurate diagnosis of language disorders, this pair of volumes is the first concerted effort to bring these issues, and possible solutions to these issues, to the fore, using examples and evidence from bilinguals speaking different language pairs from all over the world.

Which other academics in your field do you particularly admire and how have they influenced your own research?

I admire most academics who manage not only to conduct the best quality research, but who also manage to communicate the results of their studies successfully to the very populations they strive to help.

Finally, what is your next research project?

I have many!

Issues in the Assessment of BilingualsSolutions for the Assessment of BilingualsFor more information on this title, please visit the book’s page on our website here. You can also find information about Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole’s volumes on our website: Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals and Solutions to the Assessment of Bilinguals.

Signing and English Language Skills Can Go Hand-In-Hand

Author of  Making Sense in SignJenny Froude writes here about the importance of sign language for deaf children and includes her own experience with her profoundly deaf son Tom, who her book is based on.

This week, nearly 3 decades after he started there, I was back in the Unit (albeit rebuilt and changed beyond recognition) where our youngest son attended nursery school with his deaf peers. Same site, same Teacher of the Deaf and still the same need: Sign Language!

Jenny’s son Tom at his wedding

I was there on an Open Day, to see if the small local charity I represent can assist with some funding for basic, baby signing for new parents. Kate Rowley from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre gave a presentation on Language Development and Bilingualism. As a deaf daughter of deaf parents, growing up with spoken English and BSL, with both a deaf and hearing child herself and an academic background, she explained the myths and facts about sign language and how language develops.

To some of us there she was reiterating what we had already learned from years of experience but younger parents needed the confidence she could give them. Deaf children are developing English as they learn to sign and by reading with them, using fingerspelling (activated from the same part of the brain) and encouraging them to use correct mouth patterns when signing, even voicelessly, understanding is aided. In an ideal world a deaf child within a hearing family should see them automatically signing amongst themselves, not reserving it for when language is directed specifically at him/her, otherwise they can miss out on the wealth of information hearing children pick up incidentally. (Despite my being acutely aware of this it was not, and still is not, always easy to incorporate in busy family life, especially on social occasions when trying to be hostess/guest/wife/mother and now grandmother! So a minus point for me there then!)

Tom’s wife Mary signing at their wedding

If sign language is reserved solely for the deaf youngster in a hearing environment, he or she can feel it is a less valued communication method, explained Kate, but I hope our son’s slight hiccup in writing an explanation at a young age under his name “proudly found deaf” (instead of “profoundly deaf”) was a significant slip acknowledging his own worth!

Kate concluded by stressing “anything is possible WITH good language skills. Deaf people CAN learn both English and BSL”.  I have only to read newly-married Tom’s emails to appreciate the truth of that. He uses sophisticated words, for which I have no idea of the signs, in the correct context and, as I wrote in my book, when he was starting secondary school “to see you grow up, profoundly deaf, with an abundance of confidence, good humour and concern for others, to see and hear you use language not only for basic needs but to negotiate, to soothe, to tease, to cajole, to question, to predict is a bonus we never dared dream of...” Each thank you card after his wedding was personally written by hand and far, far more than a mere bread-and-butter version!

Tom and Mary’s wedding ceremony with a sign language interpreter

Interestingly both he and his deaf bride elected to make their vows using sign and voice, which proves they embrace both cultures,  and to all those people who confuse speech with language and look at me in disbelief when I say Tom’s language is amazing (although his speech is not clear) I would attribute it to the excellent advice we had from a peripatetic teacher who suggested starting to sign at one year. I hope today’s vulnerable new parents will find in signing the same joy and delight I did.  And, even better, with the vogue for hearing babies to learn signs to “jump start” their language I think any remaining “stigma” (sad though that word makes me feel) some might see in what I consider the lovely method of communication that is a lifeline for some deaf children, could be removed now it is in the mainstream. And, hopefully, that new generation will grow up being fascinated rather than fazed by watching sign language being used, whether by deaf people or interpreters. That has to be a plus!

The biggest stumbling block in the current economic climate would seem to be the prohibitive cost of sign language classes and the lack of specialist social workers with deaf children.  The system is letting them down.

To prevent the angst that is prevalent among some in the older deaf community who feel they were let down years ago by a lack of communication in their hearing families, today’s deaf youngsters (90% of whom are from hearing families) deserve the best we can give them in the way of early communication suited to their needs and hopefully Kate Rowley’s research and presentation (and my book) have suggested the way to go.

For further information about the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre please see their website.

For further information about Jenny’s book please see our website.