Flex that Bilingual Bicep

A two-year-old child with language delay, from a primarily Korean-speaking family, was referred to you by her pediatrician. Her parents were advised by her pediatrician to speak to her in only one language, English, because she will become confused once she gets to school, and plus, she’s already delayed. Why delay her any further? Wait, WHAT?

I have actually come across this same case many times throughout my very short three-year-career as a speech-language pathologist (SLP). The child is not interacting with peers her age, she has a hard time following directions, and what more, she attends an English-speaking day care. You do not speak Korean, mom does not speak much English, and your client is just trying to reach for that box of cookies on the counter. What do you do? Here’s what I learned during my time as an early intervention SLP who works with dual language learners:

  1. Establish rapport with the family. Show that you care about the child (I know you do), show that you want to help their child, show that you are not going to give up.
  2. Find materials in the family’s native language–they are out there on the great, big world wide web!
  3. We have to educate families in the best way that we can, while being sensitive to their needs. They already have a lot on their plate–their child needs speech/OT/PT/an aide/ABA, everything. Now there is one more thing: they are being told to stop speaking their native language, the language that they are most comfortable speaking, because it is potentially detrimental to their child (which is false!). How can we help?
    1. Present them with facts from research, in the most easily digestible way possible:
      1. Here’s a great resource from the Hanen Centre about Bilingualism in Young Children–it includes information about the benefits of bilingualism and some myths about bilingualism as well: http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Bilingualism-in-Young-Children–Separating-Fact-fr.aspx
    2. Have them connect with other families that speak the same language (within your means of course).
    3. Encourage and empower them. They are their child’s best teacher and advocate. If they are seeing you for speech services, they are looking to you for help, not to bog them down. When parents are given the tools to help their child’s development, and are provided with support, feedback, and encouragement, they are more likely to use your strategies at home.
    4. Remember that parents are overloaded with tasks, errands, taking care of their child. Find activities and come up with a practical home program or give them a single suggestion that can be embedded in their routine (e.g., brushing their teeth, putting on their shoes) to help support speech and language development.
  4. Connect with other SLPs who work with multilingual families–it is easier than ever thanks to social media.
  5. Refer out to an SLP that speaks the family’s native language, if you do not.
  6. Parents appreciate when you try to learn about their language and culture. I am not saying that you should conduct speech and language therapy in Korean, if you are not proficient in that language. That is definitely not best practice. To be honest, I tried to learn once. I definitely do not speak Korean! In any case, when you understand a little bit more about a family’s culture or communication style, they appreciate it. For example, learn about how a child is expected to interact with an adult versus with a peer and see how nonverbal communication comes into play during those moments. You might learn a little bit more about why a child you are working with might not look you in the eye all of the time or might not speak while you and their parent are speaking.
  7. Model language strategies for the child’s parents to use at home. If possible, have the child’s family member present during the session so they can be involved in therapy, learn about the language strategies you are recommending that they use, and so that you can learn from your child’s parents about how they communicate best with their child! Remember, we see clients for 1-2 hours per week, but their parents are with them the rest of the time–parents and family members are a child’s primary communication partners.
  8. Advocate for families and let them know that if their primary language is Korean/Spanish/Tagalog/Armenian/everything, it will not further delay their children if the primary language is spoken to them.
  9. Do the best assessment you can, ideally with an interpreter. If you do not have an interpreter available, it is important to note that standardized testing measures will have to be administered informally, depending on which test you use. If you do not speak the language, but you have a colleague that does, or a co-worker that speaks the language, ask if they can be present for part of the evaluation to help with the parent interview and education at the end of an assessment. Informal assessment is needed for these situations and parent report is extremely important. Be sure to utilize other methods of assessment aside from standardized tests.
  10. Remind yourself that speech and language therapy is a marathon, not a sprint! Progress looks different for each child, so give yourself some grace if things are not happening as quickly as you want them to.

I am a multilingual SLP myself, in Spanish, Tagalog (Filipino), and English. Advocating for multilingual children and families is near and dear to my heart. I have had the honor of working with multilingual children ranging from 18 months to 13-years-old, and have enjoyed seeing how language brings children and their families closer together. As a graduate student, I always wanted to find a way to “bridge the gap” for children and families who have English as a second language by helping them navigate through the therapy world. Educating families about what their children deserve and empowering them to advocate for their child and for themselves is what I strive to do. I figured that if I have the language skills to help these families learn more about the services that they need and help them navigate the what can be very intimidating world of early intervention services, IEPs, assessments, and therapy, why not do that? Flex that bilingual bicep and ask peers and mentors lots of questions. Your clients will benefit from it more than you will ever know.

Claudette Bañares

Claudette Bañares, MS, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist in Los Angeles, California. She currently works with children in an outpatient hospital setting. She specializes in early intervention, language development, and assessment/treatment of multilingual children with communication delays and disorders. http://mc-slp.com/

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