A student who only speaks English at home comes to school and is expected to speak fully French in the classroom. The French-Immersion teacher always reminds this student to speak in French, although the student has trouble to get simple requests and messages across. While their French is not even close to perfect, their parents rave about how their child is bilingual. On the other hand, a student that immigrates to Canada speaks their home language fluently. While English may be a slow start for them, they are labelled as “ESL” (English as a Second Language) rather than bilingual. While ESL education and ESL teachers differ between school boards and specific schools, the language we use surrounding those learners shapes both the perception of them and the support that they are given.
Depending on the school board, a speech-language pathologist, ESL teacher or classroom teacher may work with an English Language Learner. An ESL teacher would work at teaching the English Language specifically. However, if they notice that the child may be experiencing some other difficulties outside of the language barrier, then they may be referred to a speech-language pathologist. An SLP will formally assess the child and determine a plan for the child. While assessing multilingual learners, there are many considerations that individuals must take. They must gather information on the level of language and proficiency in each language. For example, if a teacher notices that the child struggles with English grammar — is this the same case in their first language, or does this problem exist in both? If this issue exists only in English and not in their first language, then often this concern is typically related to the lack of English rather than a speech or language concern.
It is important to note that language assessment needs to be culturally relevant. For example, someone that has never seen snow before may not recognize what a “sled” is. A challenge with assessing multilingual individuals is that there are various levels of bilinguals, and there are no norms to analyze. With monolingual individuals, there are research-based values and expectations for each age group. Although with multilingual speakers, there are so many different dialects and no values to compare to. Therefore when completing these assessments it is important to get more information about how the individual is performing in their first language, and then use that information to develop a program of care for them. There is a big councilling aspect too — working with parents to help them use their language to help shape the language development of their children. It is through help from translators and support from teachers that help this whole process.
Working with any student can be challenging, however adding a linguistic barrier causes a deeper barrier for both the child and the speech therapist. It is through collaboration, believing in the child and being aware of biases and cultural differences that will help these learners succeed.