Schlagwort-Archive: language development

Young multilinguals close the gap with monolinguals in English-language competencies – Findings from an Australian longitudinal study

Multilingualism and language impairment have been considered risk factors for children’s linguistic and academic development. However, the effects of multilingualism remain contested. Some studies also report positive effects deriving from multilingualism, such as an increase in metacognitive and metalinguistic skills. McLeod et al. aimed to contribute to understanding the role of multilingualism in student’s academic development by investigating the interface between multilingual status and speech and language impairment. In this longitudinal study of ca. 5,000 children in Australia, they analyse whether differences in academic achievement in the majority language English persist or disappear over time and schooling between different groups of pupils.

The following four groups of children were identified and compared for the study: (1) English only with typical speech and language development, (2) multilingual with typical speech and language development, (3) English only with speech and language concern and (4) multilinguals with speech and language concern.

Multilingual status was established by enquiring whether the child speaks or hears a language other than English at home. Speech and language impairment was determined by parent-reported concern about their child’s expressive and receptive speech. Language competencies and academic outcomes were measured at three points in time using different methods: English vocabulary at the ages of 4-5 (before school), academic abilities in literacy and numeracy at the ages of 6-7 and 8-9 years.

The authors showed that, among the 4-5 age cohort, multilingual children (with typical speech and language concern) performed more poorly on measures of English vocabulary than their English-only peers (with typical speech and language development). However, there was no difference between these groups in academic outcomes at ages 6-7 or 8-9 – at which points, all children were attending school.  Academic outcomes at those points appeared to relate more to the presence (or not) of a reported language impairment at age 4-5, and not to multilingual status. Overall, the results show that while differences in the majority language English between monolinguals and multilinguals still existed at ages 4-5, this gap had closed by ages of 6-7 and 8-9.

The reasons for these improvements may be that the multilingual children had time to continue their English language acquisition, and they may have received targeted services to support their English.

Antje Hansen

McLeod, S., Harrison, L., Whiteford, C. & Walker, S. (2016). Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes at school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 34, 53-66.

Fostering active trilingualism in early childhood

Parents who bring up their children with three languages are often faced with many questions, especially when they hope that their children will be able to use all those languages actively. Although family situations are often similar at first glance, some children exposed to three languages from birth become active trilinguals while others do not. Chevalier’s case studies shed some light on the correlations between contextual factors and levels of active trilingualism. She examined the language development of two children from the ages of two to four, who have been exposed to Swiss German, French and English from infancy. Elliot lives in French-speaking Switzerland and Lina lives in the German-speaking part. The parents in both families speak English to each other and their respective native language to the child. Chevalier interviewed the parents and made recordings of interactions with the children. By the end of the study, Elliot had attained high levels of active trilingualism whereas Lina was not able to use all three languages actively. So the question arises: How can these differences be explained?

In her comparison of the two families Chevalier reveals that Elliot benefitted from his parents’ consistent and exclusive use of the minority languages (English and German) and from his father’s conversational style that included instructions to translate and repeat. The father also rephrased sentences in German when Elliot mixed languages. Although he had the least input in German, Elliot spoke fluent Swiss German with his father. Moreover, his home languages were supported by various people (e.g. relatives).

Lina, on the other hand, had very unbalanced input. German represented the dominant language inside and outside the home. She did not have a variety of contacts in her minority languages apart from those with her English-speaking aunt. Furthermore, her father was the least consistent in speaking his native language and did not insist on her speaking French. Yet one finding deserves particular attention: Lina spoke considerably more, as well as more proficient, English than French despite having fewer interactions in English. Chevalier attributes this to the intensive and instructional conversation style of her English-speaking aunt, comparable to that of Elliot’s father.

In sum, active promotion of minority languages and reducing space for the majority language can foster high levels of active trilingualism in early childhood. However, research in this field is still rather scarce and with an alteration of input factors in later childhood language development might change.

Sara Romano

Chevalier, S. (2015). Trilingual Language Acquisition. Contextual Factors Influencing Active Trilingualism in Early Childhood. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Diagnosing specific language impairment (SLI) in bilingual children: A study from Utrecht

Research suggests that bilingual children who speak one language at home and another in school are frequently misdiagnosed when a language delay is suspected. What exactly causes this delay? Is it insufficient exposure to the language of schooling? Or should other child-internal factors, such as specific language impairment (SLI), be considered?

To improve diagnosis, a newly developed test was scrutinized by researchers in the city of Utrecht, Netherlands. Known as a ‘non-word repetition task’ (NWRT), this test contains a list of non-existing words that children have to read aloud within two minutes. Because these words are non-existing, children cannot possibly rely on their own memory or recognition of words. This gives researchers insight into the real technical reading skills of the child and is therefore considered a reliable tool in diagnosing language impairments such as SLI.

One drawback of the NWRT for bilingual children is that the non-words are based on the language of schooling, which can be too limiting when testing children who speak another language in the home. Hence, for the newly developed test, researchers tried to design ‘quasi-universal’ non-words instead of language-specific ones. These non-existing words contain features of many languages and are designed to test the reading and pronunciation skills of speakers of different languages.

It is, however, very challenging to design a test that is independent of specific language. This study from Utrecht examined whether the researchers had indeed succeeded in doing so and thereby developing a more accurate tool for diagnosing bilinguals with specific language impairment.

They used a large group of 5-6 year olds, divided into smaller groups of monolinguals and bilinguals, including those displaying typical language development and those with SLI. The children were asked to complete both types of NWRT: the language-specific and ‘quasi-universal’ test. The study showed the success of developing quasi-universal non-words as this test was more accurate in diagnosing language impairment in bilingual children. While bilinguals’ performance in the two types of test was shown to be different, the monolingual children performed almost the same on both tests.

This newly developed test has only been scrutinized in the Dutch context and further testing across other languages is required. Yet the key take-home message is that this quasi-universal NWRT has great potential in diagnosing SLI as the source of linguistic delay in bilingual children.

Anouk Ticheloven

Boerma, T., Chiat, S., Leseman, P., Timmermeister, M., Wijnen, F., & Blom, E. (2015). A Quasi-Universal Nonword Repetition Task as a Diagnostic Tool for Bilingual Children Learning Dutch as a Second Language. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research58, 1747-1760.