*** This post can also be found on Speech-Language & Audiology Canada's Blog: Communiqué by clicking here.
Have you ever heard an adult say “I used to speak French as a child but now I feel much more comfortable speaking English?”. This is a very common phenomenon called language dominance shift. It is seen most often in regions where children are exposed to the English community language more than their native minority language. For some, it’s a lifelong struggle to maintain proficiency in a minority language where one has to constantly seek out opportunities to practice that language. If you don’t use it, you lose it! What about those who have a specific language impairment (SLI)? Can they maintain proficiency in their minority language?
What is SLI? Researchers agree that SLI is a neurodevelopmental disorder with genetic components. SLI interferes with a child’s brain development which, in turn, causes difficulties with language learning.
Children who have SLI have difficulty understanding language, learning language and talking. They may have a hard time putting sentences together, using the proper grammatical verb endings or even coming up with a word they want to use. Children with SLI often use simpler language than their same aged peers. Some may even omit certain parts of words and at a young age, might sound like they are mumbling. The latter usually improves with age, but many other difficulties persist.
Children with SLI might also have difficulties with their receptive language. However, this is much less obvious. Some might seem like they are not paying attention or like they are misbehaving or even lazy. When in reality, they might only be picking up odd words here and there, but not grasping the full message, making complex sentences a real challenge This can be due to a difficulty figuring out the meaning of words. Most longer words are not frequently used so those might be difficult to understand. The same goes for words that are difficult to imagine. If I say “apple”, a picture of an apple usually pops up in your head, but if I say “dimension”, that word is difficult to represent by an image and is often more difficult to grasp.
To Speech-Language-Pathologists (SLPs), these difficulties may seem somewhat obvious. To an elementary teacher, a daycare provider, a tutor, or even a parent, these difficulties sometimes go unnoticed. Disorders like dyslexia, ADHD or autism typically have much more obvious symptoms, which is why so many more people know about those disorders. SLI is a hidden disorder, making it that much more difficult to identify. It’s important to identify kids who have SLI at an early age. However, this is often difficult, even for a trained SLP when children are learning more than one language. Bilingual children who are at risk of SLI might appear to be having difficulty learning the second language, when in reality, their difficulties show up in all languages.
We know that solid first language development can have a facilitative effect on second language acquisition. In fact, difficulty learning the first language means that these children will end up with inadequate skills in both languages. It has been shown that insufficient abilities in the first language adversely affects second-language development. So how can we prevent this? The key is often language exposure and early identification.
For both typically developing kids and those who have SLI, most will have a dominant language and a non-dominant language. The dominant language is typically the language for which they have received the greatest amount of exposure. However, the dominant language can shift over time such that children who learn a majority language (i.e. English) as a second language often end up becoming dominant in that language.
The maintenance and continued development of skills in a minority first language depends on how much exposure they get in this language. Some experts say that children need to be exposed to a language 40% of their waking hours in order to become proficient in that language.
In these instances, studies consistently show that from early to middle childhood there is a shift to greater proficiency in the majority language. This is due to the rapid acquisition of the community language together with the slowing, stabilization or loss of the minority language, a consequence of different social experiences, opportunities and demands for the two languages. Note that this is not the case, however, for children who learn the majority community language at home (i.e. English) and attend French-immersion programs for example.
Studies have also shown that young children who have a minority language as their first language and who have SLI are even more vulnerable than typically developing bilingual children to lose their first language or show early plateaus if this language is not supported.
As a parent to a bilingual child with SLI, I battle every day with these notions. My daughter learned English at the age of about 4, making her a sequential bilingual. French is her first language, but we live in a predominantly English community. Even at her French school, children often converse in English in the hallways or in the school yard. She spends roughly 42% of her waking hours in English and 58% of her time in French*. I was stunned by these numbers because I always felt as though she was exposed to a lot more French than that. However, when I actually broke down her week, it made sense. My husband and I speak English to each other and she swims competitively for the local synchronized swimming team where all of the activities take place in English. Several kids in the neighborhood with whom she plays are Anglophone and she only watches TV (Netflix) or YouTube Kids in English. Minutes become hours and hours add up quickly!
I have always spoken to her in French and my husband learned the French language with the kids so he speaks to her mostly in French as well. However, I noticed during the summer break, and even more so over the recent Christmas holiday break that she seemed to naturally default to speaking English to myself and to her siblings. Whereas my other two kids continued to use French spontaneously. I calculated the hours of exposure for that week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and the percentages changed drastically. For one, there were fewer hours of language exposure, which is to be expected because children often take on activities that require very little talking, ex. drawing. For two, she was mostly exposed to the English language due to family visits with my husband’s side of the family as well as time with friends and activities such as downhill skiing and public swimming. Overall, my daughter was exposed to the English language 85% of the time and to the French language,15% of the time. This change in language exposure seemed to turn off or dim down her French language switch and I had to constantly remind her to speak French to me and to her brother and sister. Once school resumed, this was no longer the case! Her French switch was turned back on, so to speak.
I find the analogy of a dimming light bulb fitting. Bilingualism is a continuum. Our brains can have two or more dimming light bulbs at any given time and languages are activated according to our environment. We can dim one language and have the other one on high ampere (amp) or we can have both equally activated at the same time. It might be that children with SLI have weaker amps but they are still able to learn and maintain two languages. One language might just get dimmed or turned off must faster than it would for typically developing children.
I found this fascinating and did a bit of research to see if this had been studied. From what I could find, nothing has been done on this topic. Is this an indication that her language dominance may eventually shift to the English community language? Are the cognitive demands too high for her to consciously use the French language when submerged in an English environment? Is this the case for most children with SLI? Food for thought. I hope to find out!
*In order to help parents make this calculation, I have created a form that can be used for this purpose:
Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2017
It’s mid-summer and I have been enjoying my down time with our three kids. One week on, a couple of weeks off, another week on… It’s been good. As I sit here, a bystander listening to my kids play by the water, it baffles my mind to hear how they use languages. To them, languages are a means to get their point across or to get their needs met. They speak English to our dog, English to their cottage friends, to my husband’s side of the family, to their campmates at their bilingual summer camp as well as with most friends from our neighbourhood. They usually speak French to me and to their dad as well as to my parents, except when they are surrounded by their English-speaking friends. In those instances, they will sometimes turn to me and speak English so I try to make a point of asking them to switch to French but I am sometimes reluctant to do so, for fear of sounding punitive. “Parlez français” [speak French!], is what I hear myself saying over and over again.
Here’s a sample of what I am hearing while I write this post. I am outside in our gazebo and they are swimming in the lake:
Matt: French: Je vais retourner avec mon bateau. [I’m going back with my boat]
Sarah: French: Je vais sauter. [I will jump]
Matt: English: Let’s go, I’m going tubing.
Julianne: English: Sarah let's go.
Sarah: English: Matt I said I was jumping.
French: Je sais, je veux sauter [I know, I want to jump]
Matt: English: Sarah hurry up.
French: Julianne assieds-toi en avant [Julianne sit in the front]
They switch from one language to another for no reason other than because they can! What gets me going is when the words within their sentences are so mixed up between languages that I actually have to stop and think about what they are saying. I will often make light of that and give them an inquisitive look. I explain to them that it’s okay to mix up the languages, but that whenever possible, they need to take a few seconds to think about the words they are looking for and use one language in one sentence.
Here’s an example of such code-mixing I just heard in the last 5 minutes:
Julianne: Je wish que je pourrais diver off le dock”
[I wish I could dive (with French verb ending) off the dock]
What I normally do is repeat what they say by giving them the right words. In this case, I could have said: “Ah oui? Tu souhaites de plonger en bas du quai ? Vas-y!” [Oh ya? You wish you could dive off the dock? Go for it!”].
Sometimes they repeat what I have just said and other times they carry on with what they were doing.
The interesting thing is this: very seldom do they use French words when they speak English. It’s usually the other way around. They use English words when I know for a fact that they have the French words in their vocabulary. Other times, I catch my three French-native children speak English to each other, like the example above, which is a great thing don’t get me wrong but I worry at times that they don’t get enough French exposure. In this age of iPods, iPads, AppleTV, Netflix and iTunes, they are inundated with English media to the point that French TV and French music are now the less preferred choices. I try to purchase French TV series and French music when I can, but it’s as though their default for media is now English.
We try to set some time aside a few days a week to read in French. Luckily, French is still their default language when it comes to reading. Mainly because in Ontario, they only formally learn to read in English in grade 4, at the age of 10. Why do I care so much? I guess it’s because French is the minority language here. Kids and teenagers usually end up speaking English to each other, even if they all have French as their first language. Most Francophone adults, who are actually bilingual (English as the second language), end up working in English the minute they get their first job. Work in French is usually limited to positions within the French school boards or specific government-funded programs that promote the French language. So English ends up being heard and used all over the place. Since French is my heritage language, I really want to pass down that heritage, culture and language to my kids. My husband, who learned French as the kids spoke their first words, is also very intrigued by our kids’ use of their two languages. He will often ask them to speak French to each other or better yet, point out to them when they are mixing up their languages! He understands the value of encouraging the use of the minority language and for that I am grateful.
It’s a real battle. I’m extremely conscious of the importance of promoting the French (or minority) language to our young ones, but I struggle with the means to meet that end!
Here are a few tips and tricks that have worked for us:
For more tips, check out these handouts that I have created:
Photo caption: A picture of the lake at my cottage
It has been a few months since my last post. I’ve been extremely busy at work with a departmental move and with my graduate students who are finishing up their theses! Hang in there guys! I’ve also been working on an article that I hope to see published soon. On a personal level, I’ve been busy with my kids’ extracurricular activities, school projects and just hanging out with them! I’m setting more and more time aside as they get older to spend quality time with them. I learn so much from them when we do and I’ve come to cherish those moments.
Photo caption: My kids and I making sugar cookies for the holidays.
A year has gone by since the launch of this blog and my website and I have so much to be thankful for. The positive feedback I have received from many parents, family members and colleagues is the reason why I look forward to another great year. Over the past twelve months, I have learned so much more about bilingualism, specific language impairment and ADHD. In part due to my personal life and also due to my research and this blog. It has been an exciting year!
My husband can now be seen on social medias, newspapers and on billboards across several cities and towns in North-Eastern Ontario as the poster boy for bilingualism! It’s kind of a long story. In a nutshell, I was approached by my kids’ school board back in December as they searched for a family that had a parent whose kids taught them French as a second language. I didn’t have much time to think about it as they needed to do the photo shoot the following week in order to launch their new campaign right after the holidays. So I said “yes”! Good thing my husband is a good sport. It was fun! A photographer and two staff members came to our house and took pictures of my husband interacting with my daughters. My son chose to opt out of this one but my daughters felt like stars.
Photo caption: My husband, my daughter and the photographer during the photo shoot.
Slogans such as “My daughter is helping me learn French. C’est magnifique” can be seen in airports and on billboards. As part of this campaign, the schools are even offering French as a second language classes to its anglophophone parents and guardians whose children are enrolled in French school, which I think is a fantastic initiative!
Photo caption: Clipping from our local Newspaper.
Speaking of social media, after participating in a French cultural event at my kids’ school, my husband recently posted this comment on Facebook:
“I must admit I'm super impressed with my kids school board CSPGNO (French Public). Besides the fact that I'm the "bilingual mascot" [insert humour] they hold the most amazing French culture events like the Folie Furieuse, an all day French song based lip sing/dance and games. Matt's [my son] school won the dance. I realized afterwards that the English school boards don't need to worry about the loss of their culture and language. Their [French schools] enthusiasm and commitment is contagious.”
When I read his post, it really made me think about how much I take for granted. That even after all these years of us being together, the fact that minority language speakers constantly have to make great efforts to preserve their language and culture was not a concept that he fully appreciated. Well I assure you that after reading my posts (most of them anyway), participating in a bilingualism campaign and taking part in our kids’ cultural activities, he now understands why we francophones fight for our heritage language! I think it gives him a better understanding of the importance of raising our kids bilingually too.
Because that wasn’t enough excitement, I was also invited to post on Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC)’s blog called Communiqué as well as talk about my research on a morning radio show for Radio Canada.
Photo caption: My interview with Radio Canada
All these events made me realize that I truly love what I do. I love spreading the word about the advantages of raising bilingual children and I love knowing that I might be helping children who struggle with language, be it their first or their second language.
To top it off, in less than a month, my students and I (mostly my students) will be presenting our research at Speech-Language and Audiology Canada’s 2016 Conference in Halifax (April 27-30).
You may have noticed that I have also launched the French side of my website and blog. It still needs work, but I’m working on it!
Oh, and did I mention that I pushed my personal limits to the edge? Literally! I did the Edge Walk around the CN Tower back in November! What does this have to do with bilingualism? Nothing. I just had to share since it was pretty darn wild!
Photo caption: The Edge Walk around the CN tower. Just hanging out!
In an effort to keep the ball rolling, I am already thinking ahead to the summer of 2017! I will soon be sending in a proposal to present at the 14th International Congress for the Study of Child Language (IASCL) which will be held in Lyon, France in July 2017. I look forward to being immersed in a French majority country, and eating baguettes and good cheese of course!
This past year was made possible due to your continued support! Thank you for reading! Please continue to share my posts and invite your friends to like my Facebook page. I hope that you will find my posts and handouts useful! Let me know if you would like me to write about anything in particular. I will also be launching a Q & A page shortly so if you have any questions, feel free to ask them by leaving comments below or my emailing me at email@example.com or by messaging me on Facebook.
Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2016
It’s hard to believe we are already three months into the school year! My kids are now in grades 1, 3 and 5. All of them consistently have homework now, which can be quite challenging at times. My husband and I have an agreement: because my mother tongue is the same as the school language (French), we decided years ago that I would handle all of the paperwork that comes from school and help with homework and he would make lunches! It’s a win-win situation. French is his second language and he only speaks it with the kids in an informal context, therefore he doesn’t feel at ease handling the school correspondence and the homework. The challenge I face is two-fold. For one, it can sometimes take well over an hour for me to help all three kids with their homework and for two, homework is often quite challenging and frustrating for my daughter who has ADHD and a language impairment.
Photo: A picture I took of all that came home one night as homework for my three kids!
I find I have a very small window for success with my daughter. If we wait too long to start her homework, it becomes a battle and tears have been shed many times because of it. Some ADHD experts recommend letting kids take a 30-minute break after school and then starting homework right after that since your child is still able to learn and concentrate at that time. Although that would be the ideal time, as a working mother, I often get home closer to 5:00, which means that by then, we are getting supper ready. All too often homework gets started around 5:30-6:00, which is definitely not the best time for a child who is now off her medication, tired and just wants to play. In order to minimize frustrations, I’ve sought the advise of many, including her teacher, resource teacher and my colleagues who specialize in written language.
My daughter has a real hard time with written language, so she now has assistive technology such as a laptop and a small voice recorder. Before resorting to technology, we tried several other tools. In this post, I will share with you the tools that we have used thus far. All of them have a purpose and so I keep them close by. One is actually a technique called the “Error free dictation”. The idea is that the child writes words to dictation without errors in order to ensure that what sticks in the child's memory is the correct spelling instead of the errors. In the next video, my daughter can flip back to a previous page to see the correct spelling of the words. You will notice that I am not actually giving each word out to dictation. We are just working on her short-term memory/copying skills.
This next video shows the “error free dictation” in action. You will see how difficult it is for her to spell the words correctly. As she lets her pencil drop to the floor, she becomes quite frustrated and this technique is not working for her this time, but I still keep it in our bag of tools for future dictations.
We also use the orthographic dictionary Eurêka, which allows a child to search for words according to how they sound, and not necessarily how they are spelled.
This is a great tool and my son who is now in grade 5 uses it quite well. However, I discovered with my daughter that if numeracy is not your forte, this tool is not ideal! The first step involves going to the middle of the dictionary to find the sound you are looking for. Then, you must go to the corresponding page. My daughter has a difficult time knowing if page 72 comes before or after page 53, so this tool became a source of frustration rather than an aid. Here is a video of my son using this tool to spell the word pharaon, which has the same spelling and meaning in both French and English. Because phonetically, the word starts with the sound “f”, he finds the word under “f”s and not under “ph”.
The Lexibook is another handy tool. For example, the word beaucoup in French, which means “many”, sounds like b-o-k-u. The “eau” letters combined make the sound “o” and the “p” at the end is silent. My daughter has learned how to spell this word many times before, but it hasn’t reached her long-term memory yet. When writing this word to dictation, it is pretty much guaranteed she will make mistakes.
She spelled the word phonetically: boquou so Lexibook was able to generate the correct spelling for her. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, if the spelling is not phonetic, for example, if a soft “c” is spelled as a hard “c”, it might not recognize the word. In French, the letter “c” is soft in front of “e” and “i” but hard in front of “a”, “o” and “u”. She tried to write the word campagne but wrote cenpagne, making the “c” soft. Lexibook was not able to generate a word in this case… In these instances, my daughter has to go back to the word and troubleshoot.
She came home from school with her own laptop in October to help with spelling. It was a bit of a learning curve but she was up to the challenge. She is still in the process of learning how to use all of its functions and primarily uses Microsoft Word and WordQ. The latter is a great tool that I have also purchased and downloaded onto our home iPad (it’s an app).
She uses it very well for dictation. For every word she types, the program predicts which word the user is attempting to type and gives options. Once my daughter sees the word she is looking for, she selects it from a drop down menu and the word is read aloud for her to hear. She really likes this auditory feedback because it’s a way of confirming that she got the word right. The result: words are spelled without any errors. This means that she repeatedly sees the correct spelling instead of the spelling errors she used to make. Here is what it looks like on a PC.
Photo: WordQ drop down menu used in Microsoft Word on a PC.
This tool has helped tremendously with dictation. However, we’ve tried using it with other homework, such as answering questions relating to a paragraph she has read. This however, became a source of frustration. My daughter is able to find the answer in the paragraph, but then has a difficult time retaining that information in her short-term memory long enough to write it down using the computer. The problem is that if she writes it down by hand, most of it is spelled incorrectly. Copying the information found in the text down onto the next page is not as easy as one would think as you have seen in the “error free dictation” videos. In order to do so, you need to have great short-term memory! When we use her computer, which often slows her down since she is not all that familiar with the keyboard yet, she completely forgets not only what the answer was, but all too often, the question she was trying to find the answer to in the first place! The solution? We’ve been using a small voice recorder. She finds the answer, says it out loud in order to record it, then listens to her own voice to write down the answer. This is the voice recorder she uses:
Photo: Sony Professional Digital 2GB MP3 Voice Recorder
It is very user friendly and helps her tremendously. She is able to turn it on, record her voice and listen to her answer independently.
"So how can we ensure that she is able to use the computer more efficiently?" I asked. Assistive technology is often recommended for kids who have an identified learning difficulty. However, if the child cannot find the keys on the keyboard, it’s quite difficult to use. I’ve been through this with both of my kids. Teaching keyboarding skills is no longer part of the Ontario elementary curriculum. Kids are exposed to keyboarding skills, but not the way we were when we were in school. There are several programs out there that are designed to help kids learn the basics of keyboarding. In order for a child to be efficient on a computer and with WordQ, he or she needs to look at the screen and not at the keyboard. Easier said than done! Both my kids have used the program Typing Tournament from EdAlive and Tap’Touche (French keyboarding) or it’s English equivalent: Typing Pal.
These two programs are designed for kids and offer several reinforcements throughout the lessons. It takes time, but it’s a great skill to have! My daughter actually enjoys practicing this skill.
The school teacher, resource teacher, speech-language pathologist and I continuously look for ways to make writing and homework easier for my daughter. Since writing is a part of pretty much every subject in school, it’s important that we give her the tools she needs to succeed. School is still a positive environment for her, despite her difficulties. Her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) states that she also has access to a transcriber (a person that writes down her answers). This helps when the object of the task is to determine whether or not she understood what she read for example. So at school, she often has a transcriber for formal testing. I too will often transcribe her homework answers when appropriate along with a note to the teacher.
I think that the key is to have access to several tools. For one, there are non-technological aids such as the “error free dictation” technique, the orthographic dictionaries and transcribing. For two, there are technological tools such as: the Lexibook, Word-Q on an iPad or a computer, a voice recorder, among others. These are made readily available to her and she chooses which one she wants to use. I find that when I give her the choice, homework time is much less of a battle! There are many things to keep in mind such as the time and place where homework is being done. It sometimes feels like rocket science but with a bit of patience and TLC, we manage to get through it, thanks to all the help we get from teachers, resource teachers, tutors and speech-language pathologists!
I hope that you found this post helpful. If you struggle with homework with your child and/or if your child has a hard time spelling and you have suggestions, please feel free to share by leaving a comment below or by emailing me directly.
Thank you to my colleagues Dr Michèle Minor-Corriveau, SLP and Dr Pascal Lefebvre, SLP for all your advice!
Assessing Bilingual Children for Language Impairments in Linguistic Minority Contexts - SAC-OAC's Blog Communiqué Post
I have recently written a post for Speech-Language and Audiology Canada's blog; SAC-OAC Communiqué. I had a lot of fun writing it and collaborating with the SAC Communiqué team was a real pleasure! I definitely plan on writing more posts for their blog! I encourage all SLPs and Audiologists to give it a try. This article was just posted on their blog today! However, in order to view it on their website, you need to be an SAC member or associate. I decided to cross-post it here (with their permission of course) for the non-members out there who may want to read it!
Here it is:
Feature image caption: Chantal works with a child on the "oi" sound in French.
I have been working as a speech-language pathologist in Northern Ontario for over 12 years and I still can’t quite grasp all of the implications that arise due to the linguistic context in which we live. As a graduate student, I did not fully appreciate the complexity of second or dual language acquisition. It wasn’t until I was confronted with my first caseload in 2002 that it became very clear to me that I didn’t have the knowledge required to work in this bilingual context.
The caseload, primarily comprised of bilingual children (English-French) enrolled in French-medium schools, represented a huge challenge to me as I had no way of knowing if the difficulties they were experiencing were due to a language impairment or if they simply lagged behind due to their dual-language learning.
Studies have shown that bilingual children have fewer vocabulary words in each of their languages when compared to their monolingual peers. For this reason, I knew I couldn’t use that as a marker for language impairment. Assessment tools available at the time were all standardized on monolingual populations, making them very difficult to use as well.
In many studies, the inclusion criterion for language impairment is two or more scores at or below 1.5 standard deviations from the mean. However, we need to pay attention to the population on which the tests are standardized. Psychometrically speaking, we always need to make sure that we are comparing apples to apples. It became very clear to me that we did not have any resources available for the assessment of English-French or French-English bilingual children residing in a linguistic minority context, as is the case in most provinces outside of Quebec.
Luckily, in 2009, a French translation of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals – Fourth Edition (CELF-4) was published: Évaluation clinique des notions langagières fondamentales : Version pour francophones du Canada (CELF CDN-F). However, the CELF CDN-F standards were developed using participants from Quebec, a province in which French is the majority language. I should also note that the inclusion criterion for the standardization sample allowed bilingual children to participate. Specifically, children had to speak French at home more than 50% of the time and they had to be residents of Canada for at least two years. This allowed Franco-dominant children and even immigrant children to participate in the standardization study (Wiig et al, 2009). In the standardization sample, 38% of the children were exposed to a European language, 23% to an Asian language and 8% were exposed to English. Similarly, the English versions of this test — the CELF-4 and now the CELF-5 — were standardized on primarily English-speaking children in the United States. However, approximately 15% of the participants were exposed to another language in the home (e.g., 77% Spanish, 4% Asian languages).
These are two examples of widely-used tests that include very few children in their standardization process who have similar linguistic backgrounds to the minority language learners we are seeing. For this reason, the demographic characteristics of these samples made me question whether the use of these tools was appropriate for English-French and French-English kids living in a linguistic context where English is the majority language. Many studies have shown that bilingual children are often missed or misdiagnosed, in part due to the use of tests that are not standardized on a population with a similar linguistic profile. Given these facts, which tests/tools should S-LPs be using to assess children we suspect have a language impairment?
Image caption: Chantal in a group session working on oral and written language skills with the help of a tablet.
This questioning led me to pursue my doctoral studies in 2007 in order to better understand this very complex population. Professionally, I have since come a long way in better understanding all that is entailed in studying bilingual children in linguistic minority contexts, both with and without language impairments. In fact, part of my doctoral dissertation was published in the Canadian Journal of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology (CJSLPA) (Mayer-Crittenden et al., 2014). This was the first study to compare the linguistic competencies of Franco-Ontarian children to those of French Quebecers. The results showed that on a linguistic level, French Quebecers outperformed monolingual Franco-Ontarians, and that Franco-dominant bilingual children obtained lower scores than the monolingual children on many levels, such that the use of Quebec-based standards for Franco-Ontarians is questionable. However, a post hoc comparison produced no significant differences between monolingual French Quebecers and Franco-Ontarians. I am currently collecting more data to better understand the differences between these two groups.
More recently, my colleagues and I conducted a study (Mayer-Crittenden et al., under review) indicating that 33% of the English-French children in French-medium schools were misdiagnosed as language impaired when in fact they were in the process of acquiring two languages. This study also showed that, of the tools used, following directions and recalling sentences were the best markers for identifying English-French bilinguals with primary language impairment (PLI). For the French-English bilinguals, a receptive measure of morphology and syntax, a receptive vocabulary measure, a narrative task, recalling sentences, following directions and non-word repetition (NWR) were among the markers on which children with PLI obtained scores below the cut-off, which justified their continued use with this population. Furthermore, although non-word repetition has been shown to be a useful tool in identifying children with language impairment, it was not one of the best markers in our study. For this reason, I am currently working on a study with a colleague from England to develop a quasi-universal non-word repetition test that could be used with French-English and English-French children. I hope to have results within the next few months.
All of the data presented in this article is considered preliminary because in many cases, the sample sizes were small. This is all too often the reality when studying a minority language. Still, my colleagues and I are striving to develop norms and standards that can be applied to linguistic minority populations and more specifically, Franco-Ontarian children as well as English-dominant children learning French in French-medium schools.
In an effort to inform my fellow S-LPs, teachers, parents and the general public about the complexity of the matter, I started a blog called Bilingualism in Ontario: Communication disOrders and Typical Development (BOOT) (www.botte-boot.com) in March 2015. On this blog, I have written about the characteristics of language impairments, related helpful resources and several other subjects. More recently, I had a guest blogger write a post on spelling mistakes and how we can go about reducing their frequency. The blog has gotten lots of attention and I have since extended the website to include useful links and resources when working with children who are learning two languages or who are having difficulty learning one language in a linguistic minority context. Please feel free to visit the site and post comments or questions. I would be more than happy to read your comments and answer your questions.
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by Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2015
What's in a spelling mistake? Tips to help identify different types of spelling mistakes in order to reduce their frequency
I've written a lot about my daughter in past posts but I failed to mention that my son has a mild learning disorder with a mild dysfunction in reading and writing skills. He was diagnosed by a psychologist when he was in grade 3 at the age of 8. He is now in grade 5 and has come such a long way, thanks to the help of his teachers, support staff and the advice from my dear colleague Dr. Michèle Minor-Corriveau. Written language isn't my area of expertise and to be honest, we didn't receive a lot of training in this domain when I was completing my master's degree in Speech and language pathology. I am so grateful to have an expert in the field who is willing to work with my son and provide consultations to the school staff. I asked her to write a post for my blog so that she could share with other parents, teachers, caregivers and speech and language pathologists exactly what is a written language impairment and how we can go about helping those who struggle with writing. You can read more about Dr. Minor-Corriveau at the end of this post.
Here is her post...
If we were dropped off on a deserted island void of alphabet, written words, signs or messages, we would never learn to write, nor would have the need to. Social beings that we are, we would, however inherently develop an oral language common to the natives found on this deserted island in order to communicate needs, wants and desires. Written langage, however, is a code that must be taught explicitly : it is not acquired simply by interacting with other social beings. So how do we decide which skill to teach first ? The answer to this question is not a simple one, nor is it clear cut. The answer to this question far exceeds the limits of this post, but it should be well understood that learning written language is not linear. One does not master the art of spelling and writing accurately without explicit instruction, or by summing up different skills to make a whole. In this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and given the diversity of children’s abilities grouped together almost randomly in any classroom, a one size fits all approach is rarely effective. Who decided that age was the most common characteristic that children share? That is, however, the most common factor considered when grouping them together in an effort to teach them new skills. That too is a discussion for another post. Suffice it to say that, in French, there is very little to guide teachers in the manner in which to teach spelling abilities, but there is a recommended hierarchy that, when followed across a continuum, would help children efficiently master the basics. And although mastery of one competency can lead to mastery in another, this is not a guarantee of success and some insight is needed to choose which skill should be targeted next. I suggest reading up on Pothier to gain a better understanding of this concept.
Of the utmost importance when teaching children to spell and write, is knowing what type of spelling errors they are making. So what are the different types of spelling errors? Let’s be clear: children, at one time or another, exhibit every type of error. It is part of a natural learning curve. Even as adults who consider themselves to have mastered the written code, these errors often creep into our lives. Knowing how to identify the type of error you are trying to avoid or remediate can help to troubleshoot and provide strategies that will allow your child to increase written language proficiency. Common error types include, but are not limited to: syntactic, lexical and phonetic/phonological errors. When a phonetic/phonological error is sounded out, the word is not phonetically identical to the target word. For example, when the word ‘carrot’ is spelled ‘garrot’, that would be a phonetic error. If the word ‘carrot’ was spelled ‘carott’, then that would be classified as a lexical error. Syntactic errors can only be analyzed within the context of a sentence, since they can only occur when agreement between words or clauses is inaccurate.
So what can be done to help save our children from disastrous spelling? Here are a few ideas that might help to increase the likelihood of error-free spelling.
Know your child’s error type :
Knowing the type of error that has been made can help provide a strategy to wipe out the error next time.
Phonetic/phonological errors CAN be eliminated when you ask your child to sound out the word, but this strategy isn’t sufficient in and of itself since children will often sound out the word they originally wanted to write. A high level of insight is required to use this strategy as a means of correcting mistakes. This type of error should be one of the first types to disappear, once children’s phonological awareness skills are mastered.
Lexical errors can be corrected using a dictionnary or a word prediction software such as WordQ or Medialexie. For those who are still spelling phonetically, there is an answer : using a phonetic dictionnary such as Lexibook or Franklin. These technological devices and software serve more functions than those that are listed here.
Syntactic errors can only be eliminated by learning the ropes. And by ropes, I mean syntactic competencies. A word of caution: students will not master all of these skills at once, so a high tolerance for errors related to the skills that have not been taught is required to maximise student performance and interest in writing.
Invest in a Sharpie : it’s an easy, fast and cost-effective way to block out mistakes. If a child makes a mistake, use the sharpie to block it out, so that he/she never sees it again. Write the word correctly above or below the blocked out word, and underline the area that should be focussed on. For example, if a child writes ‘carott’, you block it out and write ‘carrot’. That way the memory will focus on the underlined parts, and the odds of retaining the correct spelling has increased. Think of it this way : if a child must look at his error, in order to decipher and write the word correctly, he/she is exposed to the error more than the correct spelling, which increases the likelihood of making the same mistake over and over again (see picture at end of post).
So here’s to teachers and parents everywhere! Let’s band together and help our children use all of the resources that are readily available: dictionaries (whether they’re paper-bound or virtual) and encourage them to embrace the difficulties of written language as part of the process. We need to change children’s perspectives: everyone makes spelling mistakes. It is only when we are aware of them and the tools that are available to help minimize them, that the battle can be conquered. Corrections and constructive feedback are not equivalent to criticism. Each child should be encouraged to master skills at his or her pace, and the only competition should be with oneself.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts from Dr. Minor-Corriveau in which you will read about:
· Can a student who is still learning a skill actually make a mistake?
· Is access to a spellcheck function more of a help or a hindrance where spelling ability is concerned?
· What are the challenges that bilingual language learners face with respect to written language?
Here is an example of an easy way to block out mistakes:
by Michèle Minor-Corriveau, PhD, 2015.
Dr. Minor-Corriveau received her Master's Degree in Speech-Language Pathology in 1998 from Laurentian University. She is a registered member of the College of Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists of Ontario (CASLPO). Since 1998, she has worked with school-aged children presenting with speech and language difficulties and disorders. In 2012 she received her PhD in the area of Human Studies, an interdisciplinary doctoral programme focusing on integrating professionals from various backgrounds around a common complex problem. Her research interests center around, but are not limited to, creating standardized procedures for assessment and intervention of speech and language disorders targeting linguistic minorities, namely, the franco-ontarian population. Since 2008, Michèle has been providing lectures and teaches courses as an Associate Professor at Laurentian University in Speech and language pathology program. She is a strong advocate for francophones and francophiles alike, and is always honoured to help promote the profession of Speech-Language Pathology and its relevance in the bilingual setting.
I like to participate in international conferences because it gives me the opportunity to see what other researchers who have an interest in child language are doing and how they are going about it. The Child Language Symposium in Coventry was just that. Coventry, which was once England’s capital, suffered severe bomb damage during World War II. We very much enjoyed walking through the historical sites of the city when we weren’t at the symposium so I’ve included some pictures in this post. Back at the University of Warwick, I found myself captivated by many different presentations. Many of which opened my eyes to the importance of cognition and resilience on language development. As much as I enjoyed presenting and talking about what goes on in my part of the world, I especially enjoyed the conversations I had with other professionals from Israel, England, Russia, Poland and elsewhere who are as passionate about this field as I am. In the paragraphs that follow, I will try to give an overview of what took place over three days with over 300 delegates!
We often don’t even think about how children learn language. It’s something that all kids do, and for the most part, they do it without any formal teaching. Our brains are extremely complex and it goes without saying that language is only possible because of the way we perceive the world, the way we think, the way we adapt and because of our innate desire to communicate with those around us. There were some very interesting talks on deaf children who grow up developing their own signs and gestures to communicate with their hearing parents and how they can convey meaning without words because of their strong desire to communicate. Fascinating stuff!
Some researchers are looking at how using gestures can help activate the parts of the brain that are responsible for language, while others are looking at how theory of mind is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for language learning and language production. In a nutshell, theory of mind (ToM) is one’s ability to think about what other people might be thinking and how this can influence their actions. ToM is therefore very important for language development and communication. What I found most striking was how children are so resilient when it comes to language development. Even those who have many odds against them can develop adequate language abilities when given a chance. This is important to remember. It always makes me sad when I work with children who have difficulties with language, be it oral or written. How can it be that for some, language comes so naturally while others struggle so much? We can make a big difference. We can provide these children with the tools that they need to succeed. Because children can and want to succeed.
There were many different speakers at this conference and all of them were trying to figure out how we learn language, how we use it and most importantly, how we can help those who struggle with it. Most of them showed that education is key. That is, educating parents, caregivers and teachers about the importance of language stimulation, book reading and peer interaction.
It was reiterated several times during the conference that bilingual children, no matter what languages they speak, will have fewer vocabulary words in each of their languages than monolingual kids. This is not news, but it was a nice reminder to not be alarmed when bilingual kids don’t have the same vocabulary knowledge in each of their languages then native speakers. However, when you add up all the different words they know, they usually come out ahead of the game. Some studies that have been conducted in Europe included children who speak two, three and even four languages. Some have even shown a possible bilingual advantage such that learning more than one language helps them overcome some of the cognitive shortfalls that are associated with language impairments.
As speech and language pathologists, most of us were trained to look at kids’ language skills only. However, many studies have shown that children need to have good memory, good attention, and good processing skills (executive functions, as they are called), among others, to learn language. We need to change how we think and look at language as a process of interactions between cognition and language. In fact, it doesn’t quite make sense to separate the two since they are intertwined in our brains. By looking at both of these elements we can better understand children, how they learn and how to help develop their language skills.
I was pleased to see that there were a few poster presentations on ADHD and language. Although these were far and few between, they all showed that most kids with ADHD have pretty significant language difficulties, especially when it comes to social language skills. We need to work with kids with ADHD, but these kids often fall between the cracks, especially if they don’t have obvious language weaknesses. Social skills are extremely important to function and to be accepted in this very busy world. We, as parents, educators and speech language pathologists can help children develop social thinking and coping strategies. More and more assessment tools include a social skills component. Lets not ignore it. Being socially inept can be debilitating in this sometimes “dog eat dog” world. It was also shown that, as I mentioned in a previous post, many children with ADHD also have language impairments which puts them that much more at risk for academic failure, depression and segregation. Some studies also showed how kids with language impairments often have fewer friends and end up getting jobs that pay less then typically developing kids. I think that we can help break the cycle…
These are only a few of the topics that were covered but it gives an idea of what the trends are right now in the study of child language. At the request of some readers, I will be posting our presentation and some of the posters that my colleagues, graduate students and I presented on my website under the “useful resources” tab.
I am thinking of inviting a guest author for my next post. I will provide more details as soon as I have confirmation!
Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2015
Pictures of our multi sensory room at Laurentian University
In my last post, I wrote about specific language impairment (SLI) and ADHD. I also wrote about how SLI often coexists with other non-linguistic deficits such as cognitive impairments, social difficulties, literacy deficits and working memory problems, among others. In fact, SLI often co-occurs with other disorders and some researchers suggest using a broader term such as neurodevelopment disability to account for all of the difficulties that may coexist. In this post, I would like to address sensory modulation as one of the disorders that coincide with SLI.
What is sensory modulation? In a nutshell, our brain allows us to receive, organize and interpret sensory input; be it auditory (sound), visual (vision), vestibular (balance), tactile (touch) or proprioceptive (sensing our own body in space). Some children have difficulties processing sensory information from their own body and from their environment. Sensory modulation is the process by which the nervous system regulates neural messages (from our sense) about different sensory stimuli around us. Children with sensory modulation difficulties will either respond to stimuli that typically developing children can ignore (ex. background noise). This is called sensory over-responsivity. On the other hand, they can sometimes show a lack of response to certain stimuli. For example, they may appear to be ignoring sounds or even verbal instructions. Finally, some kids are sensory seeking and/or craving in that they love touching things or watching bright lights, for example.
Our ability to modulate sensory information allows us to generate an appropriate response that matches the demands and expectations of the environment. For example, if we walk into a room with a fan blowing nearby or a radio playing in the background, our bodies will often get used to the sensation of air blowing on our skin or to the sound of the music, allowing us to carry-on with whatever task we were about to complete. This is not always the case for children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.
Children with SLI often have difficulties processing auditory input, learning the rules of language and registering the different contexts for language. They often have poor social skills, a lack of attention, difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, poor short term memory, difficulties with planning, organizing and sequencing thoughts, as well as problems with beginning and completing tasks. Adding to that, difficulties modulating the amount of sensory input they receive makes it that much more difficult for them to learn language. In fact, researchers have found that speech and language are an end product of sensory integration.
Learning language involves more than just learning words. Language is social. In order to understand the context of a message, we need to process the information around us, be it facial expressions, tone of voice, body posture, hand movements, environmental cues, others’ intentions, etc. Children who have difficulties with sensory modulation often have difficulties understanding language. Who would have thought that language was so complicated?
Looking at a child’s sensory modulation abilities could be helpful in determining a differential diagnosis for children with suspected neurodevelopmental disabilities. As I mentioned, children with SLI, autism and ADHD all have difficulties with speech and language, but research has shown that all three have different sensory processing issues.
Within the context of a research study, my grad student and I have recently created a multisensory room in which we provide speech and language intervention using a multisensory approach to children who are diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. I have included some pictures in this post for you to take a peek. Using the Sensory Profile, a questionnaire completed by the parents, we are able to adjust the sensory input we provide according to the child’s likes and dislikes. This room offers various sensory experiences, within an atmosphere of trust and relaxation, all the while stimulating or calming the senses. Multisensory environments have been used in physiotherapy and occupational therapy; however, research showing the efficacy of this approach in the field of speech and language therapy is scarce. For that reason, we are very excited about this study, and I can’t wait to try it with kids who have SLI! I know for a fact that my daughter would LOVE it in there!
Inside this room we are able to work on narrative skills using objects and kinesthetic sand and water. The squishy sand often helps those who are tactile seeking. We are also able to adjust the lights to represent the time of day when the story is taking place. In fact, we adjust the lights according to the child’s sensory needs. We also have been using large puppets to create scenarios of social situations to address social thinking. We also use the mirror wall to practice facial expressions! The room is also useful for teaching social rules. It is a very different approach and takes some getting used to, but children are responding well to the multisensory room and are very engaged. We’ve included an aquarium with a fish to help teach responsibilities and to talk about expected and unexpected behaviors (i.e. with animals). With the help of textiles around the room, we are able to target semantic skills by categorizing objects according to how they look, how they feel and where they belong. There’s actually a lot going on in the room, but the sensory input relaxes the children, be it through dim lights, soft music or lavender essence. The children are able to focus on the tasks at hand in a very informal environment, which is very different for kids (and for Speech and language pathologists) who have been in session after session of traditional speech and language therapy intervention in a formal, school-like setting. This is still very new but I just had to share it with you! Through my research and my own personal experience, I learn a little bit more about SLI each day. One thing is for sure, if tapping into the different senses has a potential to help these kids learn, then I think that we should revisit traditional speech and language intervention and learn more about children's sensory profiles and needs. This in turn, might just help us help kids with SLI and other communication disorders make sense of the complicated world around us. We are social beings after all and we communicate using ALL of our senses so why not use all of the senses to teach language? Food for thought! I will keep you posted on the results of this study so stay tuned! Until then, thanks for reading!
Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2015
My next post will be on July 28th. I will write about my experience and findings from the Child Language Symposium, Coventry, UK.
In a community where English is the dominant language, it can be difficult to introduce a minority/heritage language to your children. “Heritage language” is a term used to identify languages other than the dominant language in a community. In this post, I will relate to my own experience introducing French to my children in an English-dominant community. However, if you are reading this and you speak a different heritage language, I strongly encourage you to listen to two podcasts on the Bilingual Avenue: episodes 41 and 51 with Marianna Du Bosque.
Growing up as a child in a French Catholic home, I was exposed to many French cultural events and traditions. We made taffy (“tire”) in November for St. Catherine’s Day, we ate meat pies or “tourtières”, we even had a big feast in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve called the “Réveillon”. Many of my aunts and uncles sang folk songs while playing spoons (yes, I mean kitchen spoons!) and various instruments. I cherish those memories and try to pass them on to my own children. I also have fond memories of trying to figure out the meaning of my mother’s bizarre expressions that her mom used to say. Many of those expressions lose their meaning when translated into another language so it doesn’t make sense when I try to explain them in English. For some reason, they are important to me and are often shared by my Franco-Ontarian friends.
It wasn’t until I was in a relationship with my husband that I discovered the power of culture. It was sometimes difficult to explain certain traditions and why they held a special place in my heart. My husband also has his traditions, shared by many of the English speakers around us. When two people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds meet, there needs to be a compromise. It’s inevitable. Both bring into the relationship different backgrounds, experiences and expectations. Things get a bit complicated when children are added to the mix. It’s one thing to decide on the languages that will be used, it’s a whole other story to decide on the cultures and religions. The book “Mixed Blessings: A Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships” by Rohda Berlin and Harriet Cannon is a great resource. It talks about how couples can bring different languages, cultures and religions to their relationship without conflict as well as the importance of respecting each other’s cultures associated with the languages and making compromises. You can listen to Harriet Cannon on Episode 41 of the Bilingual Avenue entitled “Strategies to help you navigate multicultural and multiethnic family relationships” to get great tips.
In my mind, a heritage language comes with a suitcase full of traditions and a whole lot of culture. It’s not just the linguistic code that we speak; it’s everything that comes with it that has been passed down from generation to generation. I have also seen it skip a generation; where parents come from a home in which the heritage language was spoken but for whatever reason it was not passed on. In hopes to give the gift of the heritage language and culture to their own children, they decide to raise them bilingual and bicultural, even if they themselves don’t speak the heritage language. In these situations, parents often have to rely on grandparents and on the school system to teach the language and the culture. In fact, many of my kids’ classmates are third generation heritage-language speakers whose parents don’t speak the language (or are not fluent).
Many families, just like mine, decide to raise their children bilingual and bicultural. Choosing to introduce your child to one of the partner’s heritage language is not always a decision that involves a whole lot of thought. However, it’s not that easy and it takes persistence and commitment. I think it’s also important to talk to our children about the cultures at a young age. Explain why both sides of the family don’t quite do things the same way. Children can only gain from being exposed to different cultures. Once children are a bit older, say 5-years-old and up, you can start explaining why the heritage language holds a special place in your house. You will find that it becomes part of their daily life and ends up being a natural occurrence for them. I often get approached by young monolingual English-speaking children in the park or elsewhere who ask me “Why does your little girl speak French?”. This reminds me that not all children learn two languages and it’s our job as parents to give reasons to our children as to why it’s important. Let your child be an active participant in his or her own language-learning journey. Your child will eventually realize that you have provided them with the dual gift of languages and cultures.
It is also important to be committed to the heritage language. As I talked about it in my previous post, it is our job as parents to make sure that our child gets enough exposure to that language. That’s not always easy in an English dominant community. The Multilingual Parent Website has some very useful tips on how to motivate your child to speak the minority language. Click here to find out more. More importantly, make that language FUN! If your child attends school in the heritage language, try to set some time aside to have fun activities in that language instead of reserving it only for homework. It is also important to go on trips to an area or even a country where the members of that community speak the heritage language. Exposure, exposure, exposure, mixed in with a spoonful of fun and a dash of open-mindedness is a great recipe for success when raising your child bilingual and bicultural!
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for my next post on my experience with the dual diagnosis of SLI and ADHD which will be posted May 19th 2015.
By Chantal Mayer-Crittenden, 2015.