Monthly Archive

The Perils and Value of Home Language Survey and Language Dominance Information

By: Scott Prath, M.A., CCC-SLP, Bilinguistics
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Bilinguistics
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg

We would like to begin this article by highlighting the one question that threatens to undo the progress that the speech-language community has made in better identifying children with disabilities who come from second language backgrounds. What language do we test in? This question is difficult to answer not because of its complexity but because the question itself is inherently flawed. The way the question is framed leads one to believe that we will make a choice between two languages for testing purposes, when in fact; it is the combination of data from all languages that determines typicality or disorder. We will highlight two influences that cause us to incorrectly consider testing in one language and discuss how speech-language pathologists can get back on track in identifying children from bilingual backgrounds with language disorders.
Home-language surveys and Language Dominance/Proficiency Tests
There is a fundamental difference between how general education and special education use home-language surveys. General education personnel have to make classroom placement decisions when a child begins school and are required to use a language survey in combination with other data, such as results of language dominance testing, to determine the best language(s) of instruction. The home-language surveys are usually 1- 5 questions and identify the parent language(s) and language(s) of interaction. The language dominance tests are often heavy in academic vocabulary and are designed to aid in classroom placement decisions. Is this information meaningful for speech-language pathologists? While it is a good starting point, chances are the information is old and incomplete. Schools are required to complete home-language surveys when children first enter school (IDEA, 2006), yet it is often 12 to 36 months later that children are referred for assessment, based on our experience. The language of the home evolves over time as exposure to English increases.
This is not to say that home-language information is not important. We need home language information to evaluate which languages are spoken in the home and how frequently. An up-to-date, more robust interview could include:
What languages are spoken at home?
What language(s) do you speak to your child?
What language(s) does your child speak to you?
What language is heard on the radio and television?
What language does your child use with siblings and cousins?
What language does your child use with friends?
What language(s) do other family members speak to your child (e.g., grandparents)?
The results of the language survey tell us which languages to cumulatively include in our testing not which ONE the two languages to test in. This brings us to our second point. Many diagnosticians and Licensed Specialists in School Psychology (LSSPs) do language dominance testing to determine which language to test in. Why don’t we?
There is a fundamental difference between how diagnosticians and speech pathologists use home-language surveys and language dominance testing information. Diagnosticians currently attempt to identify which language is stronger in order to assess academic ability. Speech pathologists cumulatively assess all language abilities and collectively assess whether communicative abilities are negatively impacting areas of academic concerns. In one study (Peña, Bedore, & Zlatic-Giunta, 2003) that exemplifies the importance of completing language testing in two languages, children who were bilingual were asked in English and Spanish (at different times) to tell all the foods they could think of. When asked in English the top two answers were “hamburgers” and “hotdogs.” When the same children were asked the same question in Spanish the top two answers were “frijoles” and “tacos.” This illustrates that children who are bilingual demonstrate different knowledge in each language and the information is strongly influenced by the particular language used and their culture.
The message is clear. Speech and language testing needs to be cumulative (all languages) and not comparative (one language against the other). Non speech-language pathologist professionals use language dominance information for different means. If we employ the methods of other professionals and purposes and test in one language, we do not get the full picture of a child’s language skills.


Peña, E., Bedore, L., and Zlatic-Giunta, R. (2003). Category Generation Peformance of Bilingual Children: The Influence of Condition, Catetory, and Language. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 45, 5, 938-47.
U.S. Department of Education (2006). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
This Month’s Featured Authors Scott Prath, Bilinguistics; Ellen Kester, Bilinguistics; Alejandro Brice, University of South Florida St. Petersburg
We thank our authors for providing us with this article for our Monthly newsletter.
Scott Prath, M.A., CCC-SLP is Vice President of Bilinguistics, Inc.. Scott completed his master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin in Communication Sciences and Disorders. He also completed his bachelor’s degrees at the University of Texas in Spanish and Communication Sciences and Disorders. His studies focused on second language acquisition and speech productions in Spanish-speaking children with cochlear implants. He has presented to Speech-Language Pathologists internationally and translates for the Spanish-speaking community in Austin.
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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