Bilingualism in the last 30 years: Research & Applications in Working with ELL/LLD students

  • November 12, 2007
  • Henriette Langdon

Dear Readers:

I have decided that my November column will include the presentation that I will be making at ASHA in Boston with my mentor Dr. Paula Menyuk from Boston University and some of my colleagues who received their degrees about the same time as I did (about 30 years ago)! The title of our presentation is (R)Evolutions in Linkages between Research on language Development and Disabilities. Each presenter will focus on a specific area such as phonology, language-learning disabilities, fluency, autism, deafness, and sign language, and my charge is to present on issues related to bilingualism.


Close to 10% of the student population comes from homes where a language other than English is spoken. This translates into five million English Language Learners (ELL). The students’ English skills are not sufficiently developed to benefit from a curriculum delivered in English exclusively and they need some accommodations in the form of English as a second language and/or other programs to support their comprehension. Spanish is spoken in approximately 80% of those home. The other 20% of children speak one of two hundred other languages. Interestingly, the second language most widely spoken in the nation (other than English) is Vietnamese (2.4%). All other languages are spoken by fewer than 2% of the students.

What do we know about bilingualism?

  • There are more bilingual/mutilingual than monolingual individuals on this planet.
  • The majority of us can handle two or more languages, but oral and written proficiency is rarely equivalent in the languages. Individual differences exist depending on variables such as exposure, practice, need, and context.
  • The bilingual or multilingual individual’s languages do not operate independently. Languages share universals such as concepts, ideas, and thoughts, being able to refer meaning from reading, planning large chunks of oral or written discourse, and following sociolinguistic rules.  In other words, what is learned in one language can be transferred to another language. Common features shared by all languages are referred to as common underlying proficiency (CUP). The diversity in expressing differences is referred as SUP or separate underlying proficiency (Cummins, 1981).

Why is research with this population so complex?

  • The definition of bilingualism is complex and multifaceted. It needs to include the time and manner of acquisition of each language, the degree of proficiency in oral and written language as well as consideration of the context in which each language is used and for what purposes. Some languages may not have a written version. For example, some dialects of Arabic spoken in Northern Africa.
  • Language combinations (there are differences between combination like Spanish and English; Arabic and English; an Asian language and English. etc…) may have implications for difficulty in acquiring the second language.
  • The process may be less problematic if the languages are acquired simultaneously.  In some cases, some features like sounds and even sentence structures may be more challenging because there are more differences between the two languages. For example, it might be more difficult for someone who knows a Romance language like Spanish or Portuguese to learn an Asian language compared to learning a Germanic language. However, if the underlined features of language, which include concepts, ability to retain and associate information are intact, less difficulty may be experienced.  In addition, there are individual variations, and we need to remember that some individuals may have a better aptitude for learning languages.

What have we learned in the last 30 years?

  • Based on the fact that there are connections between the languages of a bilingual child, difficulties in acquiring one language will be reflected in the success of learning a second language. For example, 30 years ago in my dissertation on defining a language disorder in a bilingual Spanish-English population, I found more significant differences between two matched groups (one normally developing and the other identified as language disordered) in the children’s performance on a Spanish task where the children were required to use working memory. Less difficulty was noted in English because both groups were in the process of acquiring the language. Patterns of errors in English were similar across both groups and differences were only significant for number of errors, not quantity of errors. These results have served as the foundation for the clinical work that I have conducted since the beginning of my practice. (Langdon, 1989; Langdon, 2008)
  • Therefore, it is paramount that assessments of a student with suspected language-learning disabilities be conducted in two languages. Conducting the assessment in only one language masks the student’s true language competence. However, considerations must be made for length and type of exposure to each language and for language loss, a natural phenomenon in bilinguals. In addition, subtle nuances such as the environment being “additive vs. subtractive” must be considered.
  • A language disorder in a bilingual student must be carefully differentiated from a language difference. Consider the paucity of language tests available other than in English and Spanish (to some degree). Results of tests do not tease out the difference!! Therefore, multiple variables need to be considered such as the type of exposure to each language, progress in oral and written language over time, comparison with siblings and other students who have been taught under similar conditions.
  • When analyzing test results, the clinician must carefully consider the underlying processes that are necessary to successfully complete a given task. The role of attention and type of memory must be factored in.
  • There is increasing research that substantiates the evidence that acquisition of skills in one language positively transfers into other skills in normally developing bilingual individuals. Most recently, the idea of phonemic and phonological awareness in children who speak Spanish positively transfer to English reading.
    As noted earlier, bilingualism is a natural phenomenon and does not infer a negative impact on the pace of acquisition or success in either language under positive circumstances where the two languages are respected and nurtured.
    Although the majority of studies have been conducted between Spanish-English (please see selected bibliography below), we need to continue exploring the acquisition of other combinations of languages (Nixon, McCardle, & Leos, 2007).
  • Having a language disorder does not impede the individual in being able to “handle” the two languages. Again, there is increasing research that even children with Down Syndrome growing up in a bilingual French-English environment were able to acquire two languages and had a similar number of vocabulary words compared to a monolingual English group of children with Down Syndrome and children identified as having autism. (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, Thordardottir, Sutton, & Thorpe, 2005)
  • Research on a Korean child identified as an Autistic child indicated that learning Korean first had a positive impact on his rate of acquisition of English and enabling him to continue progress in Korean. (Seung, Siddiqi, & Elder, 2006)

Implications and Future Directions

  • We need to continue assessing students in the two or more languages that they are exposed to in order to gain a broader perspective on their linguistic repertoire. Tests are only tools; we need to consider the student’s language history and trajectory in using those languages.
  • There is increasing evidence that students who have significant language disorders can manage a bilingual environment and that their knowledge of two languages is not a negative factor, quite the contrary. But, the bilingual environment has to be additive.
  • It is a great disfavor to tell parents who don’t speak English to communicate in English only with their children who have language/learning problems. The parents may not be proficient in English. It is important for SLPs and other professionals to encourage families to nurture the family’s native language to promote communication, and to enable the children to acquire important building blocks to enhance English learning and bilingualism. This does not imply that parents should not learn English. But, exposure to a second language is not going to harm the student in his/he progress in acquiring oral and written skills in English.
  • We need more research on how two languages of various types and structures develop over time and prove that children who are exposed to two languages can “handle” those languages even when they have significant language and learning challenges.
  • I am a biased writer and presenter because I strongly believe in the value of bilingualism. To me, bilingualism means having extra special flowers in a garden. Why not preserve those flowers in addition to other flowers?  However, water and fertilizer are necessary to preserve all flowers.

Selected References

  • August, D., Snow, C., Carlo, M., Proctor, C.P., Rolla de San Francisco, A. Duursma, E., & Szuber, A. (2006). The role of oracy in developing comprehension in Spanish-Speaking English-Language Learners. Topics in Language Disorders, 26, 365-384.
  • Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success to language minority students. In Office of Bilingual Bicultural Education, California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework  (pp 3-49). Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center. California State University.
  • Goldstein, B. (2004) (Ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers. (pp.259-285). Baltimore: Brookes Publ.
  • Kay-Raining Bird E., Cleave P., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A.,  & Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down Syndrome. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14, 187-199.
  • Langdon H.W. (1989). Language disorder or language difference?  Assessing the language skills of Hispanic students. Exceptional Children, 56, 160-167.
  • Langdon, H.W. (2008). Assessment and intervention of communication disorders in linguistically and diverse populations. Clifton Park. N.Y: Delmar Learning.
  • Mathes, P.G., Pollard-Durodola, S.D., Cárdenas-Hagan, E., Linan-Thompson, S., & Vaughn, S. (2007). Teaching struggling readers who are native Spanish-Speakers:
    What do we know? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 260-271
  •   Nixon, S.M., Mc Cardle, P., & Leos, K. (2007). Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 272-277
  • Páez, M.A., & Rinaldi, C. (2006). Predicting word reading skills for Spanish-Speaking students in first grade. Topics in Language Disorders, 26, 338-350.
  • Seung, H., Siddiqi, S., & Elder, J.H. (2006). Intervention outcomes of a bilingual child with autism. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology (March)
  • Wilder, L.K., Dykes, T.T., and Obiakor, F., &Algozzine, B. (2004). Multicultural perspectives on teaching students with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 211-222.

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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