How to Distinguish Between Bilingualism and a Speech Disorder
According to studies, 5-8% of preschoolers suffer from a speech-language disorder, making it one of the most common childhood disabilities.
What exactly do we mean by a speech-language disorder? Does it mean stuttering or a lack of coherence? Maybe the inability to articulate? Difficulty in producing certain sounds?
In truth, this disorder includes ALL of these, but goes much deeper. At its core, all of the conditions that make effective communication a challenge come under this umbrella. Apart from articulation, fluency, sounds and voice impairments, it also includes many other verbal and written challenges, like language, phonology (speech sounds), semantics (the meaning of a word or a phrase), and pragmatics (language in context).
Some of the most common ways to spot speech disorders include looking for stuttering issues, problems with articulation and coherence of sentences, and also difficulties in producing certain sounds. It is important to identify these early, because they are highly treatable, and if untreated, it could lead to a lot of struggle in coping in school, significantly impacting the academic life of the child.
Unfortunately, for both experts and parents, a lot of children who speak one language at home, and are exposed to another in school, suffer from a lot of the same problems. According to a research, in the US, 17.9% people reported speaking a language other than English at home. This makes diagnosis difficult. Both groups make sound errors and have a different, more stilted way of speaking. So, how can you identify which child is okay, and which one needs extra attention?
Here are some ways that might help you make the right diagnosis:
1. Check for disability across languages:
If a child is merely struggling with a language because it’s a NEW language, and not because his/her comprehension abilities are slow, an easy way to check this would be to focus on his/her comprehension in the native language. A learning disability rarely occurs in just one language, and not in others. Analyze your results. If the child is slower in responding to the new language, but perfectly correct in the native language, allow him/her some time to pick it up. Not all children learn at the same rate.
2. Focusing on common sounds:
Most languages share some common sounds. English and Spanish, for example, share founds like “F” (fresco ~ fresh), “D” (adios ~ door). Hindi and English, similarly, share sounds like “P” (princess ~ pari), etc. There are also a lot of sounds that languages do not share.
Test the child for common sounds from his/her native and new language. If he/she can pronounce the common sounds clearly, he/she might just be experiencing difficulty with the uncommon sounds from the new language.
3. Family history of disability:
Going through your family tree for a history of this disability might help give you more context. If all three preceding generations had cases of language disorder, you might be wise to push your child into a learning program a bit early. Remember: what can’t be treated, won’t be cured!
4. Report by parents of slower development than siblings:
Genes and upbringing are largely responsible for a child’s learning and comprehension skills. If only one out of three children is significantly struggling in learning the new language, or has communication difficulties at home and with peers of similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds, look deeper. Look for difficulties the child is experiencing, and take them to a specialist if the child continues to experience learning at a slower rate even with assistance.
5. Gaps in vocabulary, over dependence on gestures rather than speech:
Another way to identify serious language disorders is by analyzing the way the child uses his/her native language. Do vocabulary deficits exist even then? Does he/she use gestures and actions over speech? This indicates his/her comfort level with language, and can be used to make a more accurate diagnosis.
6. Difficulty following directions, irrespective of language used:
Again, focus on the child’s learning and comprehension skills beyond the barrier of a language. How does he/she respond to gestures? Directions?
7. Serious qualitative and quantitative differences compared with peers:
While it’s true that every child learns at his/her own pace, and it’s okay if some of them are picking up things slower, it’s important to make sure that the child eventually catches up. If he/she is unable to, even with dedicated assistance, and significantly differs in performance from his/her peers for an extended period of time, consider enlisting the help of an expert.
We hope this helped you clear up some common doubts, and gave you more clarity on where your child stands, in terms of a learning or language disorder. We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences as a parent or an expert