Dr Vicky Chondrogianni is a Senior Lecturer in Bilingualism at the University of Edinburgh and the Programme Director in Bilingual Development and Developmental language disorders at Bilingualism Matters.
Prior to joining the University of Edinburgh, she held research and teaching positions at various universities in the UK and overseas. Her research and teaching focuses on the language and cognitive development of bilingual children with and without Developmental Language Disorders. She investigates these issues from a crosslinguistic perspective. To date, she has conducted research on Greek, Dutch, Welsh, German, Scottish Gaelic, Mandarin Chinese, and English. She is also affiliated with the faculty of the Graduate Programme in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at the Graduate Centre of City University New York.
[Carine] Welcome back to another amazing episode of Much Language Such Talk! Today you’re hearing from me, Carine, and our volunteer, Vittoria, who has a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on how bilingual children are differently affected by language disorders, specifically dyslexia, compared to monolingual children. Welcome, Vittoria!
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[Vittoria] Hi Carine, thank you very much for that. How are you?
[Carine] Thanks for joining us. Oh, I’m great, thank you. Today we are wonderfully joined by Dr.Vicky Chondrigianni. She is a researcher and Senior Lecturer in bilingualism at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on bilingual children’s cognitive development and how language disorders might affect this. She has conducted research with Greek, Dutch, Welsh, German, Scots Gaelic, Mandarin Chinese and English bilinguals. Vicky is also the bilingualism matters program director in bilingual development and developmental language disorders. Welcome Vicky, hi, how are you?
[Vicky] Hi, Carine and Vittoria. It’s very nice to be here. Thanks for the invitation. I’m very excited for this.
[Carine] Yeah, we’re very excited to hear everything that you have to say. Developmental language disorders and bilingualism I think is something that really interests everyone. And it really interests us. I personally have like a learning disability. And I know Vittoria’s research aligns with yours a lot. So this is going to be, I think, great for everyone. We’re really excited! So let’s just jump right in! When and how did you develop your interest in languages and language disorders?
[Vicky] Oh, well, this came after, actually, my PhD. So in terms of languages, I was actually born in a predominantly monolingual Greek-speaking home. So both of my parents were speaking Greek in the home. But they were very much interested in me learning other languages. So in Greece, we have what are called “language schools” where kids go to learn other languages. And English or French are the most popular ones. So they sent me to learn English, first, around the age of seven or eight, which I found very intimidating. But I realized that I really liked doing that. So after a couple of years, they also sent me to another school to learn French. So I got the languages bug. And then when I was at the university, I started learning a bit of Italian and German as well. And then I was doing my PhD on Turkish-Greek bilingual children. So I tried to pick up some Turkish and so on and so forth, yeah. So basically, I think once you realize you’re good at doing something, you just want to do more of it.
[Carine] That sounds amazing. Wow.
[Vicky] Yeah. So, this is how my interest in languages came about and then, when it comes to language disorders is after I did my PhD. Or actually, while I was finishing my PhD, this postdoc came up on bilingualism and developmental language disorders or Specific Language Impairment, as it was called at the time. So, they were looking at, kind of similar phenomena that I was looking at in my PhD. So I thought that’s an excellent kind of match. So this is how I moved from typical bilingual development to developmental language disorders. And I joined a university, a department specializing in clinical language sciences.
[Carine] Wow, that’s so cool.
[Carine] Yeah, that one postdoc that managed to like, bring you into this crazy, amazing world of language disorder research. Wow.
[Vicky] Yeah, yes. Yeah, it was something like really happening at the time. So that was just over 10 years ago. And, there was like, increased interest in this field. So it was very timely. And I was just happening to be finishing my PhD. So it was great timing.
[Carine] Well, yeah, that is perfect. That’s so lucky as well. You mentioned that you learned a ton of languages growing up. So you said first you learned English at school. And then you learned French later on. Did you learn any other languages while you were in school, like when you’re finishing your primary, secondary?
[Vicky] Yes, in primary, we were doing English as well in the school, and then in secondary, we were doing French.
[Carine] And then you also additionally took them outside of school.
[Vicky] Yeah, it’s very common in Greece to actually be doing these afternoon language schools as well, on top of everything, like, European languages are very much valued in the Greek context, because I guess Greek, is not kind of spoken very much outside Greece, apart from the heritage communities. So speaking other languages, especially European languages is very highly valued.
[Carine] That’s cool. You mentioned, the community you lived in was very monolingual. But it seemed like everyone wanted to learn other languages.
[Vicky] Yeah, I mean, okay, yeah. So right now, everybody talks about this notion of, who is a monolingual speaker, since everybody seems to be speaking another, you know, second language. But it wasn’t actually spoken on a daily basis. So apart from the context of the private, like language learning context, it wasn’t as if I was speaking English with my parents, for example, or even with my brother. Or even with my friends. So it was mostly in the context of that kind of couple of hours a day or every other day of English courses.
[Carine] And have you continued that love? Because you said that you also tried to learn Turkish during your PhD, so have you continued that love for learning languages now?
[Vicky] Yeah, I mean, right now I’m trying to learn Chinese, Mandarin Chinese.
[Carine] How is that going?
[Vicky] It’s good. Well actually, I mean, yeah, it’s hard. It’s tough. Like the pronunciation and the tones, like the system that they have is quite complex. But it’s really interesting.
[Carine] That’s really cool. Wow. Have you gotten to the point where you’re learning characters yet? Or are you still using pinyin?
[Vicky] We did a bit of that. But they’re so hard and the problem with Chinese is that, you know, you don’t have the sound-to-letter correspondence, as you have with alphabetic languages, so you just really need to memorize the character. And my memory (laughs) … I don’t have more space in my memory for that (laughs).
[Carine] (laughs) You have a lot going on. So I think that’s ok. Take your time, you’ll get there.
[Vicky] I will get there. I think that the more vocabulary you learn, the easier it becomes to kind of start picking up the characters. But at the moment, I’m just trying to figure out, like, you know, words, and sentence structure. So yeah, I’m not at that level yet.
[Carine] But you’re getting there slowly by slowly.
[Carine] It’s so great that you’ve managed to keep bilingualism in all of your research and your life experience also going on through your research as well. I was just wondering, when did you come to The University of Edinburgh?
[Vicky] I joined The University of Edinburgh in 2014.
[Carine] And then how did you get involved with Bilingualism Matters?
[Vicky] It was actually one of the things that was like part of the job I needed to do while joining the university, because the position was advertised as a lectureship in bilingualism. And one of the things I had to do, and I actually enjoy doing is being involved with Bilingualism Matters, which is a research and dissemination center.
[Carine] So you’ve been with them since you started at the university?
[Vicky] Yes, since 2014.
[Carine] That’s fantastic. So like, things have definitely changed. And Bilingualism Matters has definitely restructured as to how it deals with its academic members. So now we’ve got program directors. And as I mentioned before, you are the program director of bilingual development and developmental language disorders. So what does that entail? So what did you, I know with the pandemic, that’s kind of, you know, thrown things for a loop. So what were your plans with this role? And what do you do with that exactly?
[Vicky] Yeah, so basically, we have different program directors in different areas, and we try to cover languages across the lifespan. So I specialize with bilingual development, so childhood bilingualism and developmental language disorders. And the idea is to reach out to professionals who deal with bilingual children. And these may be teachers, speech and language therapists, clinicians, and health visitors. So we try to disseminate information regarding bilingualism and bilingual diagnosis, for example, diagnosing disorders in bilingual children, and what we currently know, and how this can be implemented on a daily practice, for example. So the pandemic actually hindered that type of activities. But we’re hoping to be able to do that, to do these things, to continue doing these things you through webinars, and other online platforms. We also tried to kind of recruit participants, through different contacts we have across schools when we have a particular study to carry out, and we also hold events for parents and for families to kind of give them the latest information regarding bilingual development and language disorders in bilingual children. I mean, we get lots of questions like, you know, for example, if I speak the home language to my child, and not, let’s say, English is it going to hinder their development? Is it possible for a bilingual child to have a language impairment in one language but not the other?
[Carine] (laughs) Yeah we have that written down.
[Vicky] So we get these questions a lot. And we try to kind of inform people about what we currently know about these issues.
[Carine] Have you been able to continue having these workshops with parents and clinicians during the pandemic, though, have you been hosting them online?
[Vicky] Yeah, so I know, Bilingualism Matters have been organizing this. I’ve been participating in these. And now from January, we’re hoping to hold a couple of webinars for teachers and clinicians, and also parents. We currently have a project on children attending Gaelic-medium education. So we’re hoping to kind of organize these webinars, as part of this larger project.
[Carine] All right, fantastic. Let’s hope that goes through.
[Vicky] Yeah, yeah. Let’s hope so.
[Vittoria] And within the area of language disorders in bilingual children, what is your current research focusing on specifically, at the moment?
[Vicky] So right now we have, as I said, this project, looking at children in Gaelic-medium education, so primary schools, and we’re looking at the development of children in Gaelic and in English. And we are testing children who have typical development, and also children who have a developmental language disorder, or SLI, Specific Language Impairment. So, this is a type of language disorder, that affects primarily oral speech. So this is currently the project that we have that looks at the intersection between bilingual typical development and bilingual development in children with language disorders.
[Vittoria] And have you noticed any differences in how this difference manifests in bilingual versus monolingual children? And is there anything else that we need to do as researchers to explore this distinction more?
[Vicky] I mean, yeah, I mean, that’s a big question. So, there are differences and similarities between bilingual children with developmental language disorders, and monolingual children with developmental language disorders, and it depends on which language the children are speaking. And also, in the context of bilingualism, it depends on whether we’re looking at children who are exposed to both languages from birth, or who are speaking one language in the home and another language, let’s say, at school or in the community. So it really depends on different factors and I wouldn’t just do it justice, but just trying to kind of really summarize this, yes. As I said, at the beginning, this is really a new area of research, like, a relatively new area of research. So there is definitely more to be done. Apparently, most research has been carried out on English. But there is also emerging research on other languages like French, German, Hebrew, Greek, but we need to test bilingual children, or we need to investigate bilingual children speaking different languages, so we get a better idea of the linguistic profile of all these different bilingual populations.
[Vittoria] Absolutely. And like with everything, there’s always a lot of individual variation involved. So you can’t really generalize for everything, I guess. And, so we talked a bit about general language disorders. What can you tell us about dyslexia, in particular?
[Vicky] Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder, and it affects the ability to read and write accurately and with fluency. It’s a learning disorder, because reading and writing need to be learned. So they’re not acquired spontaneously, like language, for example. And it’s a specific disorder because it primarily affects reading and writing, but not, let’s say not cognition. So individuals with dyslexia have intact cognitive abilities, but they have specific problems. So they have what we call below age appropriate norms for reading and writing. And as you know, it’s a quite well known disorder. It affects approximately 7% of the population, although there are studies that have reported that it may affect a larger group even, so let’s say in a group of 20 children, you may have at least one or two individuals with dyslexia, which is not a negligible number to have in a classroom. And dyslexia is, as we said, a reading and writing disorder, but people may not know that it’s a disorder that actually affects the phonological abilities of the child. And by that we mean that the dyslexic child has difficulty pulling apart the different individual sounds that make up words. So we call this in Linguistics, different individual sounds which make up words, we call them phonemes. And the child has also difficulty figuring out how the sounds are represented into letters, or what we call graphemes. And so this is basically the root of dyslexia. So dyslexic individuals have difficulty segmenting words into their phonological or sound elements. And they have difficulty linking each letter or letters to the corresponding sound or sounds. So that’s basically, in a nutshell, what dyslexia is.
[Vittoria] Yeah and like you mentioned, it’s reported that it might affect 7% of the population, but at the same time, if we look into the fact that bilingualism might interact differently with this, then there’s a possibility of a lot of invisible dyslexics basically, that will never get diagnosed, because there isn’t enough research in this area.
[Vicky] Yeah, the problem with bilingualism and any language disorder is that if we don’t know what typical development looks like, it’s very hard to be able to diagnose what atypical development would look like. So for example, if we don’t know how, let’s say, an Italian-English bilingual child would spell certain words in English, then we don’t know whether their spelling mistakes derive from their transfer of their L1 or something related to their Italian, or something that is related to dyslexia, if they do have dyslexia, for example.
[Vittoria] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And you touched on this briefly earlier, the fact that you do get this question quite a lot. But is it possible for someone to be dyslexic in one language and not the other?
[Vicky] No. So in a nutshell, no. However, what is possible, is that the manifestation of dyslexia may change as a function of the writing system to be learned. So, we make this distinction between opaque orthographies, and transparent orthographies, or opaque writing systems, and transparent writing systems. So a transparent writing system would be a system where a letter or a grapheme has a one-to-one mapping to a sound. For example in Italian, if you say /a/ it would always be spelled with an ‘a’, you know, there is no alternative. Whereas in English, or in French, this one-to-one correspondence is much less prominent in the system. So for example, if you think of the words like rough or tough or through, or though they are all spelled with this, ‘ough’ kind of letters, but they’re all pronounced differently. So we don’t have this one-to-one sound-to-letter mapping as we have in transparent orthographies. So dyslexia will surface differently in a Spanish-speaking child, as compared to an English-speaking child who is learning a more opaque writing system.
[Vittoria] So would you say that speakers of some languages are more prone or more likely to develop dyslexia than others? Or is it mainly a difference in how it would manifest in one language compared to another?
[Vicky] Yes, it’s the latter. So it’s basically a difference in the manifestation in one language compared to the other. So the chances of getting things wrong when you’re trying to spell words in English are much higher than, you know, getting things wrong when you’re spelling in Italian or in Greek, or in Spanish, where you have more transparent orthographic systems and where orthography can be learned by just following some, you know, usually, it’s like the morphology or the grammar that is telling you: “Oh, you should spell this in this way whereas you should spell this in that way”. I mean English also has phonological rules and orthographic rules, but they’re not as transparent as what we see in other languages.
[Carine] So my mother is dyslexic and I had an unknown language disability, similar to dyslexia, and so especially growing up, my mom’s from Finland and so, when I was trying to learn how to write in English, she was always like: “Just sound it out! You spell it exactly how it sounds!”. Because Finnish is one of those languages that the way it’s spoken is the way it’s written. And I would like write down words. And then she looked at it and be like: “Yeah, no, that doesn’t seem right”. It took me so long as a kid to figure out that cookie was spelt with a C and not a K (laughs). So not fair!
[Vicky] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So it’s the manifestation that differs, it’s not that the individuals doesn’t have… And especially what we say about all language disorders, is that, if a bilingual individual has a language disorder, this should manifest itself across both languages. So you cannot have dyslexia in English but not have, let’s say, for an Italian-English bilingual child, they cannot have dyslexia in English, but not in Italian. They should have it across both languages.
[Vittoria] So it’s just a matter of the transparent orthography. The dyslexia in Italian will kind of fall under a threshold of what manifests basically, because it would manifest more prominently in a language like English, where what you say is not reflected in the way that you write it.
[Vittoria] And so since we talked about reading and writing, how would you say dyslexia affects or doesn’t affects sign language users?
[Vicky] Well, this is a very interesting question. And it’s also a very novel area of inquiry. So we know that sign languages, even though they’re soundless, so, you know, they’re not spoken, still, they do have a sound system. So they do have a phonological system like spoken languages. So by sound system, we mean that signs can be broken down into minimal and meaningless components, which we consider to be phonological properties of sign languages. So these components are the handshape, the movement, and the sign start and end location. So just to give you a comparison to spoken languages. In spoken languages, a phoneme is a sound that doesn’t have meaning in itself, but can influence the meaning of the word. So for example, in English, when you say, coat and goat, this difference between the initial sounds, /k/ and /g/, change the meaning of the word, right? So this is what we call a phoneme in the context of spoken languages. So, it’s basically a minimal unit that doesn’t have any meaning, but has repercussions for word meaning. Similarly, in sign languages, the handshape and the location of the hand, have what we consider now to be phonological properties. So for example, to borrow an example from the literature, in British Sign Languages, the signs name and afternoon, have identical handshapes and identical movements, but differ in the location the signs are articulated at. So forehead for name, and chin for afternoon. Alright. So in this respect, sign languages also have a phonological system. So if sign languages have phonological systems, then we could just hypothesize that, it is possible for a signer also to have dyslexia. So if dyslexia is primarily a disorder that surfaces as the inability to pull apart the different individual phonemes that make up words, then one would expect to find this dyslexia also in signers.
[Vittoria] That’s incredibly interesting.
[Vicky] At the moment, we don’t have enough studies to answer this question. So, we just have a few case studies investigating these questions. However, these studies do report, that dyslexic signers have difficulties with the phonological properties of signs.
[Carine] That’s crazy. Wow!
[Vicky] Yeah. So there are a couple of studies, very recent studies in the literature reporting that. So I know it’s mind-boggling, because you would think like in terms of sounds, you would expect some auditory signal, and that’s not there. But yeah, it is true that sign languages do have phonological system, of a different kind, but it’s still a phonological system.
[Vittoria] Yeah, I guess it’s interesting because even for languages that do have sounds. like we associate the phonological system with the sounds that we produce, but then at the same time, the phonological system is still probably a space that is stored somewhere, it’s still information that it stores and it just translates into sound because that’s what that language does. So maybe it’s similar for sign languages. So that system can still be affected.
[Vittoria] That’s incredibly interesting. And so would you have any suggestions of approaches that could result in people with dyslexia having lessened impacts of their symptoms?
[Vicky] I mean, they’re not my recommendations. It’s basically practices in the field. So usually, treatment of dyslexia involves a panel of specialists. So that would be a pediatrician, an educational psychologist, speech therapist, and also involvement of the school, the parents, the child as well. Apparently, treatment of dyslexia involves improving the phonic skills. So by phonic, we mean this letter- to-sound mapping. So training the child to become better at doing that. Also reading and trying to decode individual words, and also words in context. Also training dyslexic individuals on the acoustic elements of the speech signal. And also encouraging children to read and to try to read more fluently. So you know, being dyslexic kind of discourages you from reading, whereas, you know, trying to actually improve your skills and trying to read more, it’s something that could help with treatment. And also another aspect that is, kind of targeted in this area, is also trying to increase the child’s vocabulary size. So, the more words a child knows and is able to recognize, then the more skillfully they’re able to read those words. So these are some of the aspects that are targeted in the treatment of dyslexia
[Carine] So… dyslexia is probably the most commonly known language learning disorder, what are some other really big ones that do come about, as well?
[Vicky] I mean, my, I actually do lots of work in what is called developmental language disorder, or Specific Language Impairment, which I also mentioned previously. So.. Specific language Impairment is probably not as well known as dyslexia. It actually affects pretty much the same proportion of population as dyslexia, so around 7% of the school population. But it’s also considered a hidden disorder. And it’s a hidden disorder because it affects language oral language skills. So it’s not as prominent as dyslexia, where you can identify that a child has a problem, because you can see that they cannot read or they cannot spell. Whereas a specific language impairment affects oral language abilities, in the sense that the child has difficulty finding words, the right words, they have disrupted speech, so they don’t have very fluent speech when they speak. They may also make lots of grammatical mistakes, so they make mistakes that are not age appropriate. So for example, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a seven-year old child to have difficulty producing ‘s’ on a verb, so saying ‘he jumps’ for example, they would say, ‘he jump’. Or they have difficulty producing and comprehending complex sentences. So for example, when you have two sentences with verbs, one after the other, they may have difficulty parsing this information. So it’s kind of considered to be a hidden disorder, because it’s not immediately obvious what the problem is. Again, as dyslexia, it’s a specific language disorder, that is, it affects the language abilities of the child. But, other than that, the child develops normally when it comes to cognition. The children are neurotypical, and they don’t have any social emotional problems so kind of related to that, but they are not the cause of the disorder. So this is a type ofdisorder that I’ve done quite extensive research in. The other, I guess, disorder that most of you have heard is autism, but it’s not a language disorder. Autism is primarily a behavioral communication disorder and language can be something that is also impaired in this population.
[Carine] You mentioned a lot of examples of ways that children or people who have specific language impairments might show, whether it’s the adding the ‘s’ at the end of verbs or having issues complex sentences. Usually will a person who has SLI show a lot of different types of examples of like language processing issues, or will it be kind of limited to one specific kind of thing.
[Vicky] I mean again it depends on the language. So, for example, for English we know that adding an ‘s’ or an ‘ed’ to a verb is very difficult. So, this is what we call present tense and past tense is very difficult for English-speaking children. Whereas we know that for Italian, for example, children this is not as difficult. However, what we know is difficult for children SLI is the ability to comprehend and produce complex sentences. So, for example, if they hear a sentence ‘the boy who kicked the girl that was sitting by the fence was tall’ – so this is a sentence that involves multiple embedded sentences – they will have difficulty understanding or even producing that sentence. And of course, you know, if you think in terms of academic skills and the kind of texts that they need to read, when they’re in primary school and later on, most of these texts involve understanding this kind of complex type of writing, so if someone has.. and actually producing this type of complex discourse. So, if someone has difficulty comprehending and producing this complex type of discourse, then this has important repercussions on their academic achievement, and then ability to kind of succeed in school and later on.
[Carine] I was just going to say those kinds of complex embedded sentences are things that we use, generally, even in our everyday lives. It’s quite common for us to speak like that, to write like that. So yeah, that’s a huge hindrance, definitely. You’d mentioned that SLI, and dyslexia, both makeup, kind of a similar percentage of the school population for children. Are they comorbid, sometimes? Or is it that wh-would people have either dyslexia or SLI?
[Vicky] Yes, they can be comorbid. So, it is the case that an individual may have both dyslexia and SLI. But it is not the case that every child that has SLI will go on to develop dyslexia, or vice versa.
[Vicky] So, this is why we say that there is comorbidity, so they can co-occur within the same individual, but they’re not necessarily, you know, genetically or otherwise related.
[Carine] Interesting.. What’s the biggest difference, developmentally, between a typically developing child’s like language acquisition and the language acquisition of a child who has a language disability or disorder? Is there a difference in the way they acquire language? Or do they hit the same stages?
[Vicky] I mean, there are differences, I guess, the most prominent difference is, the first is the delay. So, for example, if we’re talking about Specific Language Impairment, or Developmental Language Disorders, or SLI or DLD, then what we see in the first instance is delay in the onset of speech. So, if you think that, for example, typically developing child will start producing the first words around the age of 12 months, for a child with SLI, this may happen around the age of 15 or 18 months or even later. So, the first thing is… has to do with the onset of speech, basically. And then, of course, when it comes to acquiring language, various studies have shown that children with SLI may process the speech signal differently, which has an impact on how they’re able to produce and comprehend language. So, this is why we see persistent difficulties with language in the-in the speech of, let’s say, a seven-year-old child with SLI or a nine-year-old child with SLI. So, an individual with SLI of the age of nine may have the language abilities of a six-year-old or a seven-year-old child.
[Carine] That’s a huge lag. Wow.
[Vicky] Yeah, so usually we’re talking about a time lag of approximately two years between an individual with SLI and an individual with typical development.
[Carine] Do they seem to catch up as they get older? Or will it always kind of persist that there’s some kind of delay there?
[Vicky] So, they improve…performance improves with treatment, so with therapy. And also in terms of SLI, we know that the nature of the disorder changes as they grow older. So, for example, a seven-year-old child with SLI may have difficulty producing third person ‘s’ or the past tense ‘ed’, adding these to the verb. But then an 11- or 13-year-old child with SLI will have fewer difficulties with that, if at all, and they have more difficulties with complex structures or with putting together, kind of, discourse, like telling a story in an age-appropriate way, for example.
[Carine] Okay, so I guess the big recommendation there is to work with your speech therapists and work on developing those skills to help catch up.
[Carine] So, you mentioned specifically that kids with SLI will start to develop language possibly later. Could these kinds of… you know sometimes bilingual kids – at least I-I’ve definitely heard some people say that bilingual kids start to speak a little bit later, because they’re acquiring two language systems – is it possible for typically developing bilingual children to be confused with a child with a language disorder? And is there a way to differentiate between that? Or do they look the same?
[Vicky] Yeah, so that’s a very interesting point. And it’s also very important in terms of diagnosis, because, as you said, bilingual children may have a later onset of speech as well. But when they start speaking, then what they do tends to be age appropriate. So, even though the onset is later, then they pick up much faster than a child with atypical language development would. And also that depends on whether or not they’re speaking their dominant language or not.
[Vicky] If they, for example, we’re talking about, let’s say, a Polish-English child, and they’re speaking Polish in the home, and it takes them a bit longer to speak Polish, when they start speaking Polish, which is the dominant language in the home, we would expect them to develop Polish as a typical child speaking Polish would. So, this is why it is always very important to ask what the dominant language of the child is, and also to ask the parents themselves, whether they have any concerns about the language of the child in the language spoken in the home.
[Vittoria] How about cases where the language dominance is not as obvious? Are there tests that you can do or to assess that?
[Vicky] I mean, yes and no. I mean, there are no tests that you can do directly. I guess, which one could do, is try to gather as much information as possible about the language experience of the child, also familiar history of a language disorder, and try to put together a profile of the child to better understand whether there is a real issue. And also it depends on when the child is being assessed. So sometimes, maybe it’s too early. And we just need another six months of development for things to kind of clear up a bit. I-it’s not an easy task. You know, bilingualism is a rather complicated and also changing situation. It’s not a kind of a stale state. So, it is important to gather all these pieces of information and try to understand whether you’re looking at a case of a typically developing child, bilingual child or of a language delay in that child. That should concern us.
[Carine] Yeah, it’s definitely important to keep an eye out for. So, a lot of us were wondering, then, can bilingualism be a protective factor for having developmental language disorders? Or is it because of the prevalence in bilingual and monolingual populations, is it the same? Or does it really kind of stick to one population more than the other?
[Vicky] Oh, I mean, we don’t have large population studies with bilinguals to be able to know the prevalence, but one would assume, since this is a genetic disorder, that the prevalence would be the same across monolinguals and bilinguals. So being monolingual or bilingual wouldn’t matter whether or not you have SLI or dyslexia. So, if 7% is the prevalence in monolinguals, one would assume that also 7% is a prevalence in bilinguals. So, it’s not whether or not you’re bilingual that modulates whether or not you have SLI or any type of disorder. This is not related. Now, to the issue of protective factor, I mean, it depends on what area you’re looking at. So, for example, there are some studies showing that bilingual children may be performing better than monolingual children. So, one of the area- one of those areas is, for example, processing of sounds. So, imagine you’re a bilingual child and you’re used to processing sounds not just from your language, let’s say English, but also from other languages, let’s say French or Italian. So, it means that your inventory of sounds that you have is much larger. So, the ability to kind of play around and understand the differences of the sounds is much more kind of entrenched in your everyday life. So, this is an area where bilingual children have been shown to outperform their monolingual peers. So, we could imagine also that a bilingual child with dyslexia or SLI may be doing better than their monolingual peers with a disorder in this area.
[Carine] Mhmm. Would it did then – because I know I have a lot of friends who are teaching professionals, and quite often, children with dyslexia get taken out of language classes to have additional, like other needs classes – would it be good then to continue keeping them in those classes and promoting them to learn a second language so they could get that extra phonological input?
[Vicky] Yeah, Imean, I would think yes. Again, the research in this area is very sparse. So, for example, we don’t know how dyslexia as it surfaces in a second language and how the nature of the orthographic system may influence the writing skills of the individual. But it’s definitely not something that, you know, I don’t think that somebody should be taken out of a classroom and be deprived kind of from learning another sound system just because they are dyslexic. So, I think exposure to the diversity, linguistic diversity may actually facilitate at some stage rather than hinder.
[Vittoria] So would you say that in relation to that protective element, again, it seems to be a sort of threshold effect in terms of a bilingual child is not going to be protected from developing dyslexia, but because of that training from across two phonological systems, maybe it falls slightly below of what will manifest compared to a monolingual child?
[Vicky] Yes, exactly. Yeah, so it’s not protective in the sense that, I mean, it’s not something that you catch right, dyslexia as we’ve said it’s congenital. But it’s basically the type of training that you receive when you speak or you write in-in two languages.
[Vittoria] And would you say there’s a possibility for any language disorders that are unique to multilinguals?
[Vicky] No. (general laughter). So yeah, so there’s no kind of language disorder unique to multilinguals. As we said, the manifestation of the disorder may be different if you’re bilingual. It may be different across the two languages or more languages of the bilingual or multilingual individual, but there is no disorder that is specific (laughs) to bilinguals or multilinguals no.
[Vittoria] Yeah, that makes complete sense. And when it comes to multilingual and bilingual populations, how do you do research with these populations? Are there specific considerations that you should keep in mind?
[Vicky] Yeah, so what we research these populations, we usually have a very detailed background questionnaire, where we try to gather information about the language exposure across the different languages, and their bilingual and multilingual experience. So, we try to gather information about when they started acquiring the two languages, or whether it was simultaneously from birth or one language in the home and the other one later on in life. Because it does matter, like when we are looking at, let’s say, we have a, again, a Polish-English bilingual child in P3 (in Scotland, P3 children are roughly 6-7 years-old), and, you know, we need to know when exactly they were exposed to English. Were they exposed English in P1 (roughly 5/6-years old)? Were they exposed to English in the nursery? Because this is going to affect how good their English is going to be when we’re testing them, as you’re assessing their language skills in P3. So, age of acquisition, length of exposure, so how long they’ve been exposed to both languages, amount of input they receive so on a daily basis, how much input do they receive in both languages. Also, quality of input, so who speaks to the child? Are children exposed to native Polish or native English input? Or do they get their input from non-native speakers of the language? Are there any other children in the family, like older siblings or younger siblings, because we know that older siblings tend to bring into the family the language of the community, so the younger siblings become more kind of proficient in the second language than in the home language, for example. So, all these are factors that we need to know in order to be able to disentangle what isa typical bilingual development or a case of a disorder. We also need to have information about the familiar history of any disorders because these disorders are genetic. So maybe they missed a generation, but they are passed on in the family. So Carine, for example, talked about her mother, for example, having dyslexia and herself having some, you know…
[Carine] Something similar, yeah.
[Vicky] …learning disability, yeah. So these are factors that we need to kind of put together and create the profile of the bilingual child to be able to-to understand what the dominance is of the two languages, the exposure type, and so on.
[Vittoria] So would you say that when it comes to language disorders in bilingual children, in the recruitment process, there’s a lot more qualitative data collection than there would be with monolingual participants?
[Vicky] Yes, there is in the sense that there is another language we need to kind of have information about. So these questions, I mean, I guess, if you’re looking at a monolingual English-speaking child, you wouldn’t ask them, you know, how long they’re exposed to English for, because there’s no other language that they’re exposed to, presumably. But in the context of bilingual development, we kind of need to ask those questions.
[Vittoria] And how does it translate to a language therapy setting? What do you think are some indications for language therapy for bilingual children? Is there enough to support them?
[Vicky] Yeah, so language therapy. I mean, the ideal is that language therapy is administered in both languages of the bilingual individual. But, of course, this is not always possible, unless the speech and language therapist speaks both languages of the bilingual individual, which is very rare. So what happens usually is that the language of the community is targeted. So, the second language in this context, it will be English. But that doesn’t mean that the child is not kind of assisted by this type of treatment. Because just the chance to kind of practice, even in a language that may perhaps be the less dominant one can have facilitative effects for the bilingual child. However, what is really important to stress, and this is related mostly to diagnosis rather than to therapy, is that when we’re looking at bilingual children, we are not kind of meant to use the monolingual norm. So we’re not meant to use the scores that monolingual children would get on a task and just try to assess the bilingual children on the basis of these scores. We could do that only if we were certain that we’re dealing with a bilingual child who’s really dominant in English, for example, in that case, it could be safer to do that, but not in the context of bilingual children more generally.
[Vittoria] Yeah, so basically not judging a bilingual child with a language impairment in comparison to typically developing monolingual children but to typically developing bilingual children.
[Vicky] Exactly, yeah, so we need bilingual norms, and at the moment, standardized tests that we have, I can think of only one that had those bilingual norms. So only if we have bilingual norms, can we safely say whether we’re assessing a child with a typical development or with language disorder. But if these bilingual norms did not exist, then we need to be very careful in the way we interpret the scores of a bilingual child, because we may be misdiagnosing them. So, for example, saying that they have a language disorder when they don’t or saying that they don’t have a language disorder when they do. So, this is the notion of misdiagnosis. So either over-diagnosing or under-diagnosing a child.
[Carine] Wow, so there’s definitely a need then to continue this kind of research to even gather as much normal population of bilingual children, just to see what does the typical development seem to look like? Because I don’t know, yeah, I can only think there’s the, of questionnaires, there is, I know that Sharon Unsworth worked on one, but yeah, of questionnaires, that’s the only one I can think of as well. And for monolingual and typically developing kids, there seems to be quite a plethora of tests you can kind of grab from to check it out. So yeah, there’s definitely room for more research.
[Vicky] Yeah. So yeah, so currently there is a project organized by the University of Leeds. And in this project, the researchers are trying to kind of look at the questionnaires that are available out there for bilingual children, and how they measure input and dominance and the language experience. And what they’re trying to do is standardize the questionnaires so that when clinicians or teachers want to use a questionnaire to gauge the bilingual experience they can, you know, use that one. So they kind of asked the same questions across the different context about language experience and dominance and input and quality and quantity and things like that.
[Carine] That’s great to hear that’s happening. Yeah, because that standardization is really important to make sure that things are happening. I guess maybe the difference, though, is with the input from the different languages, if the sound systems are really different and the writing systems are really different, maybe that could throw in a loop. You can’t generalize all bilinguals against all bilinguals, I’m assuming. But that’s great that someone’s trying to figure out what are the key questions we need to be asking?
[Vicky] Yes. Yeah, exactly. It’s not a panacea. But the more tools we have, the better it is. Yeah.
[Carine] Yeah. Fantastic! Well, that’s all the questions we have. This has been really fantastic and eye opening. And thank you so much for talking with us.
[Vicky] Thank you! This was really exciting and thank you for all the questions. Really intriguing and to the point.
[Carine] (laughs) We have so many more questions. Obviously, we were trying to keep what are the most important one, so if we get more, we can definitely send them over to you. So, don’t worry!
[Vicky] Sure, I’d be happy to answer them!
[Carine] Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed this episode and learnt some brain tickling facts about bilingualism and language disorders. If you want to learn more about Vicky and her research, you can check out her University page which is linked in the description. And if you have any questions, you can send her an email. Currently, Vicky is running two research projects: one in North America focusing on Greek heritage children and another one in Scotland, focusing on children and Gaelic-medium schools, and the effect of those with and without language disorders. If you would like to help out with her research, you could also find information about them in the description or you can email Vicki to see how you can participate. Thanks for tuning in. Stay safe, stay healthy, and
[Vicky] Xièxiè (Thank you in Mandarin) Carine and Vittoria and Zàijiàn (Goodbye in Mandarin)
[Vittoria] Bless Bless (Goodye in Icelandic)
[Carine] Hej då (Bye in Swedish)