Multilingualism and education

Speech Therapy for Multilingual Children

When is there a existence of a specific language development disorder by multilingual children?  Photo: Lisa F. Young © iStockphotoWhen is there a existence of a specific language development disorder by multilingual children?  Photo: Lisa F. Young © iStockphotoThe traditional diagnosis and therapy processes used by speech and language therapists cannot be used to discover whether or not multilingual children are suffering from language development impairments.

“Ich habe fertig”, (roughly translatable as “I am finished” instead of “I have finished”) ”Was erlauben Strunz?” (“What Strunz thinks?” instead of “What does Strunz think he is doing”) and “Ware schwach wie eine Flasche leer.” (Was weak like a bottle empty”) – who fails to remember how the former soccer coach at Bavaria Giovanni Trapattoni murmured such statements into the microphones at a legendary press conference more than ten years ago? The Italian football coach won a great deal of sympathy for these statements because he had the ability to express his emotions in German, a foreign language, in spite of the fact that he lacked a knowledge of German grammar. Much less famously, speech and language therapists come across very similar statements in their day-to-day work with children who have what is called a specific language development impairment. They are just as intelligent as other children and like to talk a lot. But they have a problem with language, because their sentences sound just as strange as Trapattoni’s statements. “Some four-year-old children use just one or two-word sentences”, explains Erfurt Speech and Language Therapy Professor Solveig Chilla. “And then there are six-year-olds who cannot conjugate verbs properly or put them in the right place in a sentence and ask things like: 'What are Mummy doing?' or 'The mouse next to the cheese sits'.”

Misdiagnosis due to wrong procedures

What are Mummy doing?  Photo: Yanik Chauvin © iStockphotoSome five per cent of all children in Germany have a language development impairment of this kind. It is presumed that there is a genetic cause. Speech and language therapists have relatively reliable methods for diagnosing the disorder and supporting the linguistic development of these children in therapy. But for some years, they have been facing a new challenge. Today, more and more children are coming to speech and language therapy practices who have grown up with more than one language, for example because their mother and father have spoken different languages with them from birth, because their nanny speaks a different language to the family or because the family language is different to that of the day-care centre.

However, the instruments used in speech therapy have been developed for children who have only heard and learnt German from birth, and they can lead to incorrect results in the case of multilingual children: “The diagnostic process specifies standards, for example, how many and which German words a child should know at the age of six. If, for example, a six-year-old only knows 25 per cent of these words when given a vocabulary test, and there is no indication of other causes, such as cognitive or hearing impairments, he or she may have a specific language development impairment”, explains Chilla. “However, if a child only started learning German on starting kindergarten at the age of three, different standards should apply. In such cases, this test might lead to a wrong diagnosis and thus to the wrong consequences for therapy.” Also, the fact that statements by a second-language learner like Trapattoni sound so similar to those of a child with a specific language impairment in German can inevitably lead to inadvertent mistakes.

An instrument for many languages?

If a child  started learning German at the age of three, different standards should apply.  Photo: ND1939 © iStockphotoFor these reasons, speech and language therapist Solveig Chilla has been cooperating with her colleagues in Germany and abroad for years to develop diagnostic proceedings that are suitable for multilingual children. Even the question of defining normal and abnormal language acquisition in the case of multilingual children presents researchers with great challenges, however. One reason for this is that for a long time, little research was done on the language acquisition of children from migrant backgrounds. Another reason is that a great many different factors appear to play a role. ”To begin with, for example, there are major and significant differences between the different languages and migrant groups in Germany. English is much more highly regarded than Turkish, the Russian-speaking community uses Russian much less in everyday life than the Arabic-speaking community uses Arabic, for example, and the Turkish-German language community in Bremen uses the two languages differently to the equivalent community in Mannheim. All these factors can affect children’s language acquisition.”

How do you deal with it?

There are major and significant differences between the different languages and migrant groups in Germany.  Photo: kali9 © iStockphotoIn spite of these differences, Chilla and her colleagues are trying to develop cross-language acquisition models and to draw up criteria as to when the existence of a specific language development disorder may be assumed in the case of multilingual children. Chilla hopes that the procedures that are developed will then find practical application in the work of speech and language therapists in three to four years. Although specific language development impairments affect different phenomena for speakers of different languages, it remains the case that the specific language development impariments of multilingual children in Germany can often only be diagnosed and therapy provided in the German language. There are twofold reasons for this. Firstly, there are still far too few speech therapists in German practices who have undergone bilingual training. And secondly, the results of therapy in the German language may also have a positive effect on the other language.

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
July 2012

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