Speech and Language Therapists and Multilinguals

In my practice as Language Consultant for Multilingual Families I sometimes refer families to speech and language therapists (SLT's) when I think that the children need some professional support with their speech or language development.
I can't stress this enough, but SLT's who work with multilingual children should have a solid understanding of the typical patterns of language development in multilingual children. It is not enough to know how a typical and atypical development in one target language would look like, as each language presents unique challenges and opportunities.
Not knowing how the other language(s) function, their patterns, i.e. phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, as well as other cultural aspects one needs to consider when working with multilinguals and multilculturals can lead to misunderstandings and inaccuracies in assessments.

We can not expect that SLT's are proficient (i.e. understand, speak, read and write) all our languages, but they should be able to access and make assessments in the needed languages.


Speech and Language Therapists working with multilinguals should know that:

  1. Multilingual children's language development is not necessarily delayed or disordered. Multilingual children may reach language milestones at different rates. Furthermore, a delay is not a sign of a language disorder.
  2. Code-switching and code-mixing is a natural part of language development in multilinguals. Children may mix words or use different grammatical structures when switching between languages. This is a natural part of using multiple languages and is not a sign of a language disorder.
  3. Context and exposure are key. Children need sufficient exposure to rich language in each of their languages in order to develop proficiency in them. Furthermore, it is not realistic to assume or even aim for equal language proficiency in all languages. Multilingual children acquire and learn their languages in different contexts, for different purposes and through different persons. Therefore their language skills will vary across their languages. Consequently, the context in which each language is used affects the respective language development.
  4. Speech and language therapists should consider the child's entire linguistic repertoire. When evaluating multilingual children, speech and language therapists should consider all the languages used by the children, not just the dominant language. And they shouldn't only assess the children's oral skills, but also their non-verbal communication skills. As non-verbal communication skills can differ across languages (think about the way gestures are used in different languages), it is advisable that the speech and language therapist is familiar with the non-verbal communication in the target languages.
  5. Speech and language therapists should involve parents and caregivers in therapy. Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in supporting their children's language development, and should be involved in therapy whenever possible. 
  6. Cultural factors can impact language development. Speech and language therapists should be aware of cultural factors that may affect language use and development, and should work to understand the cultural context in which the children are growing up in. For example: how are children expected to interact with adults in their home cultures? Are they expected to address adults in a formal way only, or are they allowed to speak informally? Are they allowed to make eye contact with adults?
  7. Speech and language therapists should be familiar with assessment tools for multilingual children. Standardized assessment tools may not always be appropriate for evaluating multilingual children. Speech therapists should be familiar with alternative approaches and tools for assessing language skills in multilingual children.

Overall, speech and language therapists who work with multilingual children should approach language development from a culturally and linguistically responsive perspective, taking into account the unique needs and experiences of each child and their family.

Speech and Language Therapists should work with Teachers

What we also may need to ask is how the speech and language therapist who works with our children collaborates with our children's teachers. There should be a close collaboration between the speech and language therapist and the teachers, as the SLT will need to know how to help our children progress in the school language. Furthermore, our children's teachers need to know what our children are working on so that they can take this into account when assessing our children's language at school. 

Some schools have in-house SLT's, who are a great help as they are familiar with the curriculum and can keep teachers informed about our children's progress. Moreover, as SLT's tend to have long waiting lists, schools offering SLT's in-house services allow quicker intervention.



I recommend the following books on this topic:

Dual Language Development and Disorders, A Handbook of Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, by Johanne Paradis, Fred Genesee, Martha Cargo. 

Taalstoornissen bij meertalige kinderen, by Manuela Julien

Multilingual Children, by Dr. Mary-Pat O'Malley

Difference or Disorder: Understanding Speech and Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, by Ellen Stubbe Kester





Language Assessments for Bilingual and Multilingual Children


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