Monthly Archive

Focus on Bilingualism: Language of Intervention with Bilingual Children

By: Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP and Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
One of the most frequent questions speech-language pathologists (SLPs) ask when working with bilingual children is, “Which language should I use in intervention?” There is not a definitive answer but both ASHA and researchers of bilingual development can provide a way to guide your decision.
ASHA (1985) stated that for people with limited English proficiency, remediation in the minority language is necessary. Studies of adult second language learners support the importance of remediation in the second language. If you have learned a second language as an adult you will likely recall a period during which you had to translate everything you heard before it made sense to you. This period in second language learning has been represented in the Word Association Model (Kroll & Stewart, 1994). As you had more and more exposure to your second language, you were more quickly able to access the concepts and eventually lose the need to translate to your first language. This process is represented by the Concept Mediation Model (Kroll & Stewart, 1994). Studies that have explored the accuracy of word knowledge and the speed of retrieval support the notion that second language learners move from translating to directly accessing concepts (Kroll, Michael, Tokowicz, & Dufour, 2002; Kroll, van Hell, Tokowicz, & Green, 2010).
What does this mean for intervention? When people are first learning their second language it would be inefficient, and likely ineffective, to attempt to remediate a language impairment in the second language. It would require the client to translate from one language to the other, which may or may not be successful, depending on their word knowledge in their second language. Additionally, we know that the structure of languages varies. Something that is morphological in one language (e.g. possessive forms in English) might be syntactic in another (e.g. possessive forms in Spanish). In other words, if a child demonstrated difficulty with possessives and other morphological markers in Spanish, it might be inappropriate to target possessives in English, as that would focus on a syntactic rule.
For children who are bilingual English proficient, ASHA (1985) proposes that it is not essential that providers remediate in the native language but that the speech-language pathologist must have certain competencies to distinguish between dialectal differences and communication disorders. This competency includes understanding contrastive phonological, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic features between languages. That said, it is critical to understand that difficulty on structures that do not exist in English should be addressed in the native language.
By the time children reach the later elementary school grades, they are usually bilingual English proficient. However, many of these students continue to use Spanish at home. They likely use different vocabulary in the home and school settings, thus we cannot assume that everything learned in one language is also learned in the other language. SLPs in the schools should consider the importance of supporting both languages for children in this situation. It is widely known that when language enrichment strategies are used across multiple settings, such as home and school, children make faster progress. For students whose home language is not English, this may require supporting the second language, even for those students who have a high level of proficiency in English.
While there is not a hard and fast rule for selecting the language of intervention, consideration of the process of language acquisition, as well as the client’s language background should help guide that decision. Often, an approach that mirrors the client’s language exposure in each language is successful.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1985). Clinical Management of Communicatively Handicapped Minority Language Populations [Position Statement]. Available from
Kroll, J. F., Michael, E., Tokowicz, N., & Dufour, R. (2002). The development of lexical fluency in a second language. Second Language Research, 18, 137-171.
Kroll, J. F. & Stewart, E. (1994). Category interference in translation and picture naming: Evidence for asymmetric connections between bilingual memory representations. Journal of Memory and Language, 33, 149-174.
Kroll, J. F., van Hell, J. G., Tokowicz, N., & Green, D. W. (2010). The revised hierarchical model: A critical review and assessment. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13, 373–381.
This Month’s Featured Authors:
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at
[email protected]
Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients. Please visit his website at or reach him by email at [email protected]

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