Multilingual children misdiagnosed, expert says - Education Matters Magazine
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Multilingual children misdiagnosed, expert says

Linguistic diversity must be taken into account when testing children for speech and language disorders, according to linguistics scholar Dr Madalena Cruz-Ferreira.

The problem is widespread and misdiagnoses of language disorders in such children leads to poor learning outcomes and wasted resources, she said.

Cruz-Ferreira paper Assessment of communication abilities in multilingual children: Language rights or human rights? Was published in Australia-based International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

She said testing multilingual children for speech and language disorders with monolingual tests damaged learning outcomes.

Most often, testing against rigid monolingual standards generates “false positives”, diagnosing children who are developing normally as having disorders. This is damaging to their wellbeing, and wastes resources by funnelling them into special education when a tutor may be sufficient to address their difficulties with particular languages.

Concern over low test scores often leads to misguided recommendations for educational segregation of multilingual children, and can prompt excessive referral of multilingual children to speech-language pathology clinics, she said.

Monolingual testing can also give rise to “false negatives,” when a child with a real speech and language disorder is not diagnosed, because it is presumed their problems are merely part of being multilingual.

“People assume that because a child is multilingual, the child will have funny ways of expressing themselves, or have small-scale deficiencies in vocabulary and so on,” Cruz-Ferreira said. ”So we fail to identify children with genuine disorders.”

Those children would through life with serious problems because nobody had taken the time or interest to help them, she said.

Cruz-Ferreira proposed that schools and speech-language pathology clinics use language aids and interpreters to work with students and clients who struggle with the official language. She also recommended norms be developed for testing multilingual children.

One existing method, she said, is “dynamic assessment”, which can test language ability regardless of any specific language.

Associate Professor Chris Brebner of Flinders University, who has conducted research into dynamic assessment, agrees it is a good approach.

“Dynamic assessment evaluates children’s potential to learn language,” he said.

“As multilingual children have different language backgrounds and experience, this allows assessment of their capacity to learn language, rather than comparing with what is ‘normal’ where there are varied levels of existing knowledge.”

Reliable information also needs to be spread about multilingualism, Cruz-Ferreira said, including being made part of teacher and speech-language pathologist training.

This would encourage a factual understanding of multilingualism, and encourage all parties to move away from simplistic interpretations of multilingualism as either good or bad, she said.

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