Speech Difference or Disability: Overlap or Not?

When average American listeners find a child or an adult from another country difficult to understand, they often can’t figure […]

When average American listeners find a child or an adult from another country difficult to understand, they often can’t figure out if they are hearing the sounds and melody of a different language or the struggles of a speech disability. One employee said that his new acquaintance sounded British, but the new co-worker was actually hearing impaired.

Let’s compare two adults born outside the U.S. An African woman has an unusual cultural voice. The question becomes, “Is this typical for her language group or is there a vocal pathology?” An Asian college student has many more speech sound differences than classmates from his native country. How can a concerned parent or professional tell if these are typical English as a second language (ESL) patterns or not?

Now, let’s compare two bilingual children. The first is a bright second grader, adopted from Japan, who has been in the U.S. for just one month. He doesn’t talk at all, even though he was a top English student in Tokyo.

Contrast this with another child, age four, from Europe, who has learned English as her fourth language. She says /t/ instead of the /k/ sound (e.g. /tuti/for “cookie”) in all four languages. Does either of them have a speech therapy issue beyond basic English language learning? What do you think?

The Japanese boy was going through a natural silent period experienced by many international children new to the U.S. Within a few months, he was explaining rules for complex games and telling “The Three Bears” story.

The four-year-old girl had a mild sound-sequencing problem that required intense treatment to correct. The average general language stimulation activities were not enough. This is where ESL and speech difficulties overlap.

Currently, one third of the people in the United States are people of color. Some have been born here, and some have immigrated from other countries. Seven per cent have speech and language disabilities. Those populations intersect in our schools.

Professors Kohnert and Glaze and their research team at the University of Minnesota published an article in August 2003 on diverse populations being served by speech/language pathologists. They quoted statistics from the year 2000 census data, reporting that 10 per cent of the U.S. population, or 28 million people, were born outside the U.S.

According to Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, a professor at California State University in Fresno, California, 87 million people throughout the U.S.. considered themselves to be of diverse backgrounds, indicating a 43 per cent increase from 1990. Across the United States in the school year 2000-01, there were 4,584,946 students with Limited English Proficiency enrolled in U.S. public schools.

Kohnert and Glaze continue to provide statistics a little closer to home. They note that international immigration in the year 2000 accounted for over one third of Minnesota’s population growth. Between 1990 and 2000, Minnesota’s Latino population grew by 166 per cent. Minneapolis now has the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia.

In the year 2000, 60 per cent of the children in the Minneapolis schools were Latino, African- American, African or Asian; 19 percent of the Minneapolis public school population and 32 per cent of the St. Paul K-12 population were English Language Learners.

According to Elizabeth Watkins, State of Minnesota Director of ELL (English Language Learners) and Minority Issues, Division of Special Education, in 1999-2000 there were 4,866 students in Minnesota with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) entering public kindergartens.

Educational speech/language pathologists carefully screen pre-school children for speech language disorders. These knowledgeable and dedicated professionals confer and co-ordinate with other team members to make sure they do not under identify or over identify children who may have speech problems beyond ESL. Some situations can be very ambiguous.

What factors may account for some children learning English faster than others? According to Brown (1980), the amount of time that the child spends speaking English with English-speaking peers is the key factor. If children have a poor language foundation in their native language, due to lack of stimulation, English will also be more difficult to learn. The quality of caregiver interactions and socioeconomic status can contribute to children’s ease of English language acquisition. Literacy is easier to acquire in a second language if you are already a reader in your native language.

The multicultural speech language pathologist must become a detective and ask questions about how and where the child uses the languages s/he speaks. Speech pathologists will often observe children in their natural environments to see how they are communicating in both languages. We interview adults who know the children well to get a complete view of their communication skills. There may be periods of code switching, or using a combination of languages. Interpreters play a valuable role, too.

Standardized tests are only valid if they are culturally sensitive. Elizabeth Pena discusses the degree of modifiability as another factor in determining language difference or disability. She looks at how easily children can respond to sample language models as a distinguishing feature.

A Combination of ESL and Speech /Language Disorders

If there is a language disability in the first language, it also shows up in the second language. Severe disabilities are generally obvious but minor disabilities, which may have major effects on learning and behavior, are more difficult to pinpoint and diagnose in a different cultural context.

Hearing impairment interferes with learning English by preventing phonetic acquisition of certain sounds and limiting the ease of vocabulary development.

Sound sequencing problems (oral or verbal apraxia) also limit vocabulary development. Often the student doesn’t know how to say a word and misses out on the meaning. Sometimes there are sounds that students avoid because they seem too difficult to learn. There may be cognitive delays or memory problems.

Carryover of Childhood Speech Disabilities in Native Language to Later Life – Work in English

Due to lack of infrastructure in war-torn countries, some children never received the speech therapy they needed. Therapy might not have been available if they lived in a remote village. It’s also possible that speech improvement wasn’t culturally relevant. Sometimes different cultural views about what constitutes a disorder may have prevented parents from seeking treatment for their children while they were growing up. A severe stutterer may never have sought out help because he didn’t want to be perceived as having “mental problems.”

Some adults have kept their verbal communication problems in check by carefully controlling their environments. Hidden speech problems may come out in unusual ways such as avoiding or being overly sensitive about certain situations or listeners. Sometimes adult workers may not want to take a promotion for fear it will put them in their worst-case scenario.

They painstakingly construct their world by avoiding situations that contribute to the problem. Social stress, fear of authority figures or public speaking can bring a relapse of speech issues that they thought they had previously resolved.

Perhaps with an encouraging referal by a sympathetic supervisor or colleague, they can become ready to tackle their speech challenges. Reframing the assistance in a positive light makes a difference.

Any individual who has speech and language difficulties beyond the usual ESL patterns, whether an adult or a child, would benefit from an evaluation by a bilingual speech language pathologist or a multicultural speech/language consultant. Having testing done in both languages, often with an interpreter, and comparing the results gives a clearer picture of therapeutic or training needs.

Some cultures may interpret speech disabilities as a burden to bear silently or a stigma of shame. Others associate these differences with evil spirits. With the right evaluation and therapy or training, people with speech disabilities from different cultures don’t have to suffer from traditional limitations. They can have a better quality of life and maintain their cultural integrity. With support, they can take control and break though their self-imposed limitations. They can get the help they need and be recognized as valuable contributors to their communities.

Common Speech/Language

Differences That Do Not

Indicate a Speech Disorder

Linguists have compiled detailed lists of the usual phoneme patterns of every language. Here are some of the most common linguistic features that are cross cultural and based on the quirks of English.

Grammar and Word Choice:

1. Omission of final /s/ for plurals

2. Omission of final /ed/ for past tense

3. Words in a different order- (“Dress blue” is a direct translation from the Spanish “vestida azul”)

4. Omitting “is” (The to be verb is not found in some Asian languages)

5. Idiomatic expressions that don’t make sense to the American listener (either direct translations or combined forms – ”He hit me at the punch bowl) / He beat me to the punch”)

5. Unusual word choices (A speaker may say, “Take off your clothes.” instead of “Take off your coat.”)

Common Sound Differences Across Cultures:

1. /d/ or /z/ for /th/ dem or zem for them

2. v/w as in “Vey cool!”

3. i/I as in “How does it feet (fit)?”

4. a/ae hot/hat (especially from British speaking countries)

In Asian languages:

1. /l/r/ Do you have the correction or the collection?

Speech/Language Problems Beyond ESL Issues: Some of these red flags may be ambiguous and require the careful attention of an experienced professional to sort out.

1. Sounds other than the expected language specific phoneme patterns are misarticulated.

2. Hesitations are natural, but volleys of syllable repetitions or revisions that interfere with the message are not. This may show up at varying levels of the second language proficiency.

3. The silent period lasts much longer than expected. It’s natural for children who first come here not to speak for a while and concentrate on comprehension. Linguist Robert Ellis notes that this averages three months. However, it may last up to a year for a child who is afraid to take even small risks.

4. The usual ESL teaching techniques do not seem to be working.

5. Students are not picking up much on their own, but only learning what is taught in their best modality.

6. Students need many more repetitions and models than their same language peers before they “get it.”

7. Students may show unusual posturing or quivering of the lips or the tongue when trying too hard. This is an indication of apraxia, which is an oral motor sequencing problem.

8. Students may have excess nasality or snorting sounds, (Not just assimilation nasality based on their own language’s system as in Hmong). Snorting sounds might indicate palatal problems.