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  1. Nelson, Nickola Wolf PhD, Editor
  2. Butler, Katharine G. PhD, Editor Emerita

Article Content

If you don't know foreign languages, you don't know anything about your own. - Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet, dramatist.1


Goethe, who is quoted above, reportedly knew French, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.2 Many speech-language pathologists know only one language. In fact, the Multicultural Issues Board of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA, 2004) cited a 2002 report that less than 6% of ASHA members identified themselves as bilingual or multilingual. Issue 26(4) of Topics of Language Disorders (TLD) is designed to expand readers' knowledge of what is involved in multilingual language and literacy learning. We anticipate that it will be of deep interest to many-not only to monolingual and bilingual speech-language pathologists concerned about language disorders, but also to educators, parents, and to many others concerned about the nature and challenges of language and literacy development among children acquiring more than one language at a time.


Goethe's comment about the advantages of multilingual ability touches on some of the important questions addressed by authors in this issue. For example, what does learning a second language actually teach a child learner about the first-or the other way around? What is a "foreign language," in fact, to children born in America (or any other country for that matter) of immigrant parents? What is the "foreign language," for example, for Spanish-speaking, English-learning children in the United States, or for children born and raised as bilingual French-English speakers in Quebec, Canada? How does bilingual language learning influence literacy learning in either or both languages, contributing an essential tool for success in higher-level education and employment in "first world" politico-social systems?


The authors of issue 26(4), "English Language Learners: Language and Literacy Development and Intervention," address these questions and other complexities that have both theoretical and practical importance. As Ellen Bialystok (2001) noted in her book Bilingualism in Language Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition,


It is immensely difficult to understand how children learn one language. The competing descriptions each explain only part of the process, so a complete understanding requires integrating pieces from different perspectives. The need to weave together a larger fabric from distinct fragments is not surprising given the complexity of the enterprise and the number of factors that impinge on children's experience in language learning. This complexity is multiplied when one considers the factors relevant to a child's experience in learning two languages. (p. 56)


The Editor (N.W.N.), who is one of those ubiquitous monolingual speech-language pathologists (other than a little high-school German and not very successful attempts to learn Spanish on tape), confesses to a good deal of trepidation about knowing how best to assess and treat language disorders among children learning more than one language at a time. The Editor Emerita (K.G.B.), who lives in California, has participated in developing assessment tools and other appropriate methods for working with second-language learners. Thus, we were particularly enthusiastic when Dr. Peggy McCardle accepted our invitation to act as Issue Editor for the final issue (No. 4) in Volume 26 of Topics in Language Disorders. When McCardle invited her then assistant at NICHD, Dr. Christy Leung (now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County), who is fluently bilingual in Chinese and English, to join her in editing this issue, we were equally excited about the added voice Dr. Leung could bring to the conversation.


In this issue, McCardle and Leung have encouraged contributions from some of the most active research teams in the United States, if not the world. In some cases original findings are reported; in others, authors synthesize and interpret their own and others' findings from multiple sources. The authors include researchers who have first-hand experience at untangling the threads of conjecture and assumption in order to weave together a coherent, evidence-based picture of bilingual children learning language and becoming literate.


Among the take-home points that stand out to us is the consistent advice that understanding what a child knows about language requires assessment of the child's abilities in both (or all) of the child's languages. Although this advice may seem daunting at first, especially to monolingual clinicians, it is somewhat freeing as well. That is, it opens up the assessment process to move beyond measuring proficiency, identifying a primary language, and testing a child's language formally in that language alone, to broader possibilities. In this issue, clinicians learn the importance of widening the assessment process to multiple languages, observers, modalities, and situations. It is particularly freeing to recognize that attempts to identify one language as "primary" are nearly futile when children have exposure to more than one language from an early age, and that simultaneous versus sequential language learning is a distinction whose boundaries are more than a little fuzzy. Exploring a child's strengths and weaknesses across languages is by nature a dynamic process that mirrors the original dynamic process of language learning. Rather than seeking a static picture of what a child "really knows" at a particular point in time, clinicians may expect that abilities will vary across communicative contexts, and that instructional experiences and features of each language may play a role in further learning of both spoken and written language, a realization they can take advantage of rather than lamenting.


Another comforting take-home point is that experiencing communication in more than one language clearly is not detrimental to children's overall abilities, and may even be helpful (Goethe's point). Thus, it is safe for clinicians and educators to encourage parents to communicate with their children in the language that comes naturally to them. Doing so seems to be essential, in fact, to keeping English Language Learners fluent in their home language as well. In this regard, it seems that the old advice that speech-language pathologists often give to parents that what their children say is more important than how they say it holds true for bilingual language learning as well as monolingual learning.


This issue of TLD also reminds clinicians and educators of the importance of differentiating difference from disorder. As is the case for monolingual language learners, the vast majority of bilingual language learners do not have disorders. Although estimates might vary, there is no reason to suspect that any more than 10% of such children should be considered at risk for disorder. On the other hand, literacy learning gaps associated with racial and ethnic diversity are undeniable. The research reported in this issue adds to the conclusion that it is poverty, not bilingualism, that accounts for most of this disadvantage. That does not relieve researchers and educators of the responsibility, however, to figure out what factors are causing the gaps and to do more to narrow them. Authors of this issue are clear about the many questions that remain to be answered with further research and their awareness that they are only scratching the surface. They offer evidence as well of the value of intentional, explicit instructional practices to support literacy and language learning.


A final point we would like to make in this introductory column is about the importance of leadership. In his leadership workshops, one consummate leader, Wayne Secord, likes to use the metaphor of the lead goose, who takes point and leads the flock, but who also knows the moment to relinquish the lead. A few years ago, one of us (N.W.N.) was asked by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) to take the lead on preparing a policy statement, technical report, guidelines, and knowledge and skills on the Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists in Reading and Writing (ASHA, 2001). Beyond the articles, the committee was given the charge to work with several federal agencies to conduct a leadership conference to consider next steps in the research agenda to lead the field forward. The result was a conference held at the ASHA national office with a series of paper presentations on key issues, followed by break-out sessions to consider what to do next.


One leader whose passion stood out at that meeting was issue editor Dr. Peggy McCardle. McCardle's emphasis on the need to consider bilingual language learners' special concerns was a clear and present voice. Although many people in the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, no doubt have played a role in developing the national agenda that McCardle and Leung describe in their introductory article to this issue, McCardle's influence is clear in guiding and encouraging this national agenda. It now has resulted in the network, the Development of English Literacy in Spanish-Speaking Children (DELSS), which began in 2000.3 Secord's metaphor works well in this case in that a true leader makes it easier for others to do their job well. McCardle's leadership is evident in the work behind these articles, as well as in the work of bringing the articles to readers of TLD. We are so pleased that she and her authors accepted our invitation to make TLD one forum for the report of this important work.


-Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD, Editor


-Katharine G. Butler, PhD, Editor Emerita




American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2001). Roles and responsibilities of speech-language pathologists with respect to reading and writing in children and adolescents (position statement, executive summary of guidelines, technical report). ASHA supplement (Vol. 21, pp. 17-28). Rockville, MD: Author. [Context Link]


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2004). Knowledge and skills needed by speech-language pathologists and audiologists to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services. ASHA supplement (Vol. 21, pp. 1-7). Rockville, MD: Author. [Context Link]


Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in language development: Language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [Context Link]


1Andrews, R., Biggs, M., & Seidel, M. (Eds.). (1996). Art and Antiquity, III, 1 (1821). The Columbia world of quotations. New York: Columbia University Press. [Context Link]


2According to the biographical entry in the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2001-05). Retrieved October 8, 2006, from http://www.bartleby.com/66/79/25179.html. [Context Link]


3For specific information about network projects and their publications and measures developed, McCardle directs readers to the network Web site at http://www.cal.org/delss. [Context Link]