Bilingualism: Speech & Language Assessment and Intervention

Do you know three essential pieces of assessing a student whose primary language is NOT English?

They are:

1.  Thorough parent interview and case history

2.  RAN (Rapid Automatic Naming) subtest in both languages

3.  Thorough language sample in both languages

I learned these three very important assessment steps from Dr. Langdon’s seminar at CSHA a couple of years ago and they have stuck with me.  I now make sure I do these three things when I am assessing a bilingual student in addition to using other  test instruments.  Her seminar is one I have used over and over again in my daily work as an SLP.  I think every SLP should know the facts about bilingualism; what it is and what it is not.  This blog post is a must read for us all!

I have always been interested in the process of identification and treatment of bilingual students.  I get a fair amount of referrals for Spanish-speaking students each year.  I’ve even had some Punjabi and Mandarin speaking students referred for speech and language testing.  So fascinating.

I always try to stay up to date on best practices for speech and language assessment and intervention to the best of my ability.  I am almost crazy about this.  I need to know that what I am doing has foundations and evidence behind it.  As much as it is possible, I want every facet of the speech and language services I offer to have a solid research base.  I think my love of “the literature” started in undergrad and has continued to this day! I just wish I had more time to read my JSLHR! Not so much free time over here these days…

Anyway, I attended a fantastic seminar a couple of years ago at CSHA on this very topic.  The presenter was Dr. Henriette Langdon.  One word to describe her and that seminar = WOW.  She was absolutely incredible.  I learned more from that seminar than from any one course I ever took in graduate school on the subject of bilingualism.  Dr. Langdon speaks four languages fluently and has provided services in all of them including, English, French, Spanish and Polish.  If you live in California (or even if you don’t) you will want to find out when and where Dr. Langdon is speaking and go hear her! She will be at CSHA this year presenting a short seminar with her daughter.  If you go, I promise you will not regret it.  She has so much knowledge to impart to all of us SLPs and student SLPs.

I am honored that Dr. Langdon agreed to write a post on bilingualism for my blog.  I’m actually giddy with excitement right now.  After reading her post, you will have a better understanding of bilingualism, the research in the area of bilingualism, and best practices for assessment and intervention! She provides us with research based information to take right into our therapy rooms as we work with our bilingual students.

Her post is divided into 4 sections:

1) What do we know about bilingualism

2) Why is research with this population so complex

3) Assessment Issues

4) Intervention Issues



Some highlights on bilingualism, assessment and intervention.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP

Professor-Communicative Disorders and Sciences

Lurie College of Education

San José State University

San Jose, CA .


About 10% of the student population comes from homes where a language other than English is spoken. This translates into 5.3 million English Language Learners (ELL). These students’ English skills are not sufficiently developed to benefit from a curriculum delivered in English exclusively and they need some accommodations in the form of English as a second language and/or other programs to support their comprehension. Spanish is the most prevalent language spoken by the majority of students (77.2%) followed by Chinese and Vietnamese that are spoken by only 3.8% and 2.7% respectively. The other 16.2% of ELL students speak one of other 150 languages (Batalova & Mc Hugues, 2010).

What do we know about bilingualism?

  • There are more bilingual/multilingual than monolingual individuals on this planet.
  • The majority of us can handle two or more languages, but oral and written proficiency is rarely equivalent in the languages. Individual differences exist depending on variables such as exposure, practice, need, and context.
  • The bilingual or multilingual individual’s languages do not operate independently. Languages share universals such as concepts, ideas, and thoughts, being able to refer meaning from reading, planning large chunks of oral or written discourse, and following sociolinguistic rules. In other words, what is learned in one language can be transferred to another language. Common features shared by all languages are referred to as common underlying proficiency (CUP). The diversity in expressing differences is referred as SUP or separate underlying proficiency (Cummins, 1981).
  • Everyone can become bilingual, but there are many factors that play a role in measuring the ultimate level of proficiency in any given second language. Important factors include: adequate exposure to the language and explicit teaching, motivation on the part of the learner, opportunities to practice the language and identification of the learner with the culture represented by the language. Interestingly, age is not as an important factor as is motivation. The advantages of learning a language early are that the child will have a more “native-like” accent in the given language.
  • There is increasing research that substantiates the evidence that acquisition of skills in one language positively transfers into other skills in normally developing bilingual individuals. Most recently, the idea of phonemic and phonological awareness in children who speak Spanish positively transfer to English reading. As noted earlier, bilingualism is a natural phenomenon and does not have a negative impact on pace of acquisition or success in either language under positive circumstances where the two languages are respected and nurtured. Although the majority of studies have been conducted between Spanish-English (please see selected bibliography below), we need to continue exploring acquisition of other combinations of languages (Nixon, McCardle, & Leos, 2007)

Why is research with this population so complex?

The definition of bilingualism is complex and multifaceted. It needs to include the time and manner of acquisition of each language, the degree of proficiency in oral and written language as well as consideration of the context in which each language is used and for what purposes. Some languages may not have a written version. For example, some dialects of Arabic spoken in Northern Africa.

Language combinations (there are differences between combination like Spanish and English; Arabic and English; an Asian language and English. etc.…) may have implications for difficulty in acquiring the second language.

The process may be less problematic if the languages are acquired simultaneously. In some cases, some features like sounds and even sentence structures may be more challenging because there are more differences across the two languages. For example, it might be more difficult for someone who knows a Romance language like Spanish or Portuguese to learn an Asian language compared to learning a Germanic language. However, if the underlined features of language, which include concepts, ability to retain and associate information are intact, less difficulty may be experienced. In addition, there are individual variations, and we need to remember that some individuals may have a better aptitude for learning languages.

Assessment Issues

  • Based on the fact that there are connections between the languages of a bilingual child, difficulties in acquiring one language will be reflected in the success of learning a second language. For example, 35 years ago in my dissertation on defining a language disorder in a bilingual Spanish-English population, I found more significant differences between two matched groups (one normally developing and the other identified as language disordered) in the children’s performance on a Spanish task where the children were required to use working memory. Less difficulty was noted in English because both groups were in the process of acquiring the language. Patterns of errors in English were similar across both groups and differences were only significant for number of errors, not quantity of errors. These results have served as foundation for the clinical work that I have conducted since the beginning of my practice. (Langdon, 1989; Langdon, 2008).
  • Therefore, it is paramount that assessments of a student with suspected language-learning disabilities be conducted in two languages. Conducting the assessment in only one language masks the student’s true language competence. However, considerations must be made for length and type of exposure to each language and for language loss, a natural phenomenon in bilinguals. In addition, subtle nuances such as the environment being “additive vs. subtractive” must be considered. •
  • When you assess a bilingual student take time to understand and document how the languages were acquired/learned and how they were used. For example, you may find that vocabulary for certain items is stronger in one language because of exposure (kitchen utensils, certain foods in L1). Or you may discover that the student speaks very little or quite well in L1 when you interview the student’s family. This will explain your assessment results.
  • When analyzing test results, the clinician must carefully consider the underlying processes that are necessary to successfully complete a given task. The role of attention and type of memory must be factored in.
  • There are practically no tests available in other languages than Spanish. To learn more about the student’s proficiency in L1 (other than Spanish), gather and analyze a language sample using various contexts such as telling a story or making one up using wordless books; explaining how to play a game; describing a certain event or experience. If the student has been formally educated in L1 request the student brings a book in that language. Collaboration with a trained interpreter will be necessary (Langdon & Cheng, 2002).
  • A language disorder in a bilingual student must be carefully differentiated from a language difference. Consider the paucity of language tests available other than in English and Spanish (to some degree). Results of tests do not tease out the difference!! Therefore, multiple variables need to be considered such as the type of exposure to each language, progress in oral and written language over time, comparison with siblings and other students who have been taught under similar conditions.

Intervention Issues

  • Having a language disorder does not impede the individual in being able to “handle” the two languages. Again, there is increasing research that even children with Down Syndrome growing up in a bilingual French-English environment were able to acquire two languages and had similar number of vocabulary words compared to a monolingual English group of children with Down Syndrome and children identified as having autism. (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, Thordardottir, Sutton, & Thorpe, 2005)
  • Research on a Korean child identified as an Autistic child indicated that learning Korean first had a positive impact on his rate of acquisition of English and enabling him to continue progress in Korean. (Seung, Siddiqi, & Elder, 2006).
  • Ideally, intervention should occur in the stronger language of the student. However, this might be impossible because there are no bilingual Arabic or Russian-speaking SLPs. Therapy will have to be given in English but the family can help their child by continue to communicate in L1 and embed some of the goals to improve overall communication.
  • It is not uncommon that children resist speaking their native language because they wish to be like everyone else. It is the family’s responsibility to nurture L1 but the school and staff need to truly encourage the student to use and communicate in that language and praise the student for his/her bilingual skills.

Key References

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago, M. (2011) (2nd ed). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning: Baltimore: Brookes.

Goldstein, B. (2012) (Ed.) (2nd ed), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers. (Baltimore: Brookes Publ. Kayser, H. (2008). Understanding and educating Latino preschool children. San Diego, CA: Plural Publications Kohnert, K. (2008). Language disorders in bilingual children and adults. San Diego, CA: Plural Publications.

Roseberry-McKibbin, C. (2008). (3rd.Ed). Multicultural students with special language needs: Practical strategies for assessment and intervention. Oceanside, CA: Academic Communication Associates.

Other References

Batalova J., & McHugh, M (2010). Top languages spoken by English Language Learners nationally and by state. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute

Kay-Raining Bird E., Cleave P., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A., & Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down Syndrome. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14, 187-199.

Langdon H.W. (1989). Language disorder or language difference? Assessing the language skills of Hispanic students. Exceptional Children, 56, 160-167.

Langdon, H.W. (2008). Assessment and intervention of communication disorders in linguistically and diverse populations. Clifton Park. N.Y: Delmar Learning.

Langdon, H.W & Cheng, L.L. (2002. Collaborating with interpreters and translators: A guide for professionals in the communication disorders field. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.

Nixon, S.M., Mc Cardle, P., & Leos, K. (2007). Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 272-277

Seung, H., Siddiqi, S., & Elder, J.H. (2006). Intervention outcomes of a bilingual child with autism. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology (March)

This is a modified and updated version of the 2007 November issue of ¿Qué Tal?



Dr. Langdon is a professor in the Communicative Disorders Department at San José State University where she has taught full time for the past 15 years. She received her doctorate from Boston University in Psycholinguistics and Special Education. Her dissertation was on determining a language disorder in a bilingual Spanish-English population of children. She has been in the field for the past 39 years. Her passion has been working with bilingual children with various language and learning challenges and their families. She has written books and articles on the topic and has presented locally, nationally and internationally, Dr. Langdon speaks four languages fluently and has provided services in all of them including, English, French, Spanish and Polish. She raised her daughter speaking French and Spanish. Her daughter is a certified Family and Marriage therapist who provides services to the Spanish-speaking population in Southern California.




  1. Kaye Welch SLP says:

    I appreciated your article. Do you have a contact e-mail that I might forward some additional questions? I would appreciate some specific information related to assessment tools involving this population and need your expertise, Kaye Welch MA-CCC-SLP

  2. Thank you so much, this was extremely useful

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