Rachel Rakov: Commentary on Vicky Chondrogianni’s “Identifying Language Impairment in Bilingual Children”

On October 20th, 2016, Vicky Chondrogianni presented a talk entitled “Identifying Language Impairment in Bilingual Children”.  Ms. Chondrogianni is visiting from the University of Edinburgh this year, and as a member of the Advanced Research Collaborative, is working with students in the Multilingual cluster.  Before introducing her work, Chondrogianni first specified that the work she would be discussing would be from the perspective of linguistic analysis, rather than clinician analysis.  This was an important distinction to make, and allowed for her work to be taken within its correct context.

Chondrogianni began her talk by first defining the terms of her research, Specific Language Impairment, and Childhood Bilingualism.  Specific Language Impairment (SLI) is a language disorder wherein there is developmental asymmetry between cognition and language abilities.  Some of the linguistic properties of SLI include difficulties with past tense and 3rd person -s in English, as well as difficulties with complex sentence structures, finding and producing words, repeating nonsense words, and organizing a higher order discourse.  Both language expressive and language receptive skills may be affected by SLI, and the profile of SLI changes over time, due to SLI being a developmental disorder.  This disorder affects language primarily, in the absence of other impairments (exclusion criteria include normal hearing, no emotional problems, normal performance IQ, normal neurological status, and no history of ear problems).  Students with SLI tend to perform less well in school, and SLI occurs with high prevalence (7%)  in school-aged children.

Next, Chondrogianni defined childhood bilingualism, and described the details of the specific group her work focuses on: bilingual children with SLI.  As bilingual children are a heterogenous group, there is a lot of variance within this group that can affect SLI, such as the age of onset of the two languages, length of exposure to the languages, the linguistic properties of the two languages, and proficiency in each language.   The children she defines in this work are sequential bilingual children, who learned their second language around the ages of 3 or 4.  It is important to note that bilingual children with SLI  show language impairment in both languages they speak; low proficiency in one of two languages does not indicate SLI.

Identifying Specific Language Impairment in children, particularly bilingual children, can be tricky.  There are standardized assessments that can be used to try to identify SLI, but these gold standards have mostly been developed for monolingual children.  To assess SLI in bilingual children, clinicians can chose to use monolingual  assessments to establish bilingual norms, or can chose to develop bilingual assessments.  The latter presents a challenge, of course; in order to properly create bilingual assessments, additional trained personnel would needed to administer the assessment, and we would need more knowledge about language development in under-researched languages (to have truly comprehensive and language-inclusive SLI assessments for any range of bilingual children).

After presenting this overview,  Chondrogianni pointed out that bilingual children tend to have more severe difficulties than monolingual children with Specific Language Impairment.  This lead us to one of her primary research questions: is there a cumulative effect of bilingualism on language impairment?  She went on to describe two different research studies that begin to shed light on this research question.

In the first study she described, a cross-linguistic comparison study,  Chondrogianni explored what factors actually affect children’s development and ability to meet typical status (or language “norms”). Investigating three groups (monolingual children with SLI, monolingual typical children, and Turkish L1 English L2 bilingual kids), the researchers expected that typically developing bilingual kids would have lower levels of production but not comprehension; they expected that age-matched SLI peers would have lower levels of comprehension because their grammatical apparatus is flawed.  They additionally expected that the level of maternal education would predict a child’s “inability to reach age appropriate norms”, as well as the amount of exposure to each language.

The task that was set for this experiment (a word monitoring task) was designed to test whether children are sensitive to ungrammatical conditions based on response times.  Children with SLI are known to not be sensitive to omissions of inflection associated with clinical markers in English.  In this experiment, the researchers transferred this same task to bilingual children.  The results of this word monitoring task showed that children with SLI didn’t have the same sensitivity to grammatical violations in monolingual tests (as measured by their reaction times).  When the prediction task was applied to bilinguals, both typically developing bilingual children and SLI individuals had slower reaction times than typically developing monolingual individuals overall, but typically developing bilinguals were sensitive to grammatical violations (again, as shown by reaction times).  The production task data was not similarly predictive.

The second study focused on Welsh-English bilingual children with Specific Language Impairment.  This study focused on bilingual children with and without SLI, who were between the ages of 4 and 6.  All children were tested in both languages (with the dominant language being Welsh).  The researchers found that when tested in English, typically developing bilingual children and bilingual children with SLI performed similarly on tense tasks; however, when tested in their home language (Welsh), typically developing children showed significant differentiation with regard to how they performed on the task.

So where do we go from here?  Chondrogianni proposed several possibilities for future directions of this work.  There is a great need to development assessments in under-researched languages so that testing for SLI can be carried out in both languages a bilingual child speaks.  There is also a need to develop bilingual norms, to differentiate typically developing bilingual children from those bilingual children who have SLI.  Finally, making use of subtler psycholinguistic techniques could help to unravel some additional underlying problems with Specific Language Impairment in bilingual children.

~Rachel Rakov