How do you know if your bilingual child has a language delay? [Transcript]

January 14, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of the Kletsheads podcast, we’re talking about what it means for a bilingual child to have a language delay, the extent to which this is the same as having a language disorder, and how to go about diagnosing developmental language disorder in bilingual children. We also speak to a teacher and educational consultant, who gives us five simple steps to make space for bilingualism in the classroom. And the 10 year old Nia tells me about learning to read in Japanese at Saturday school and how she lived in Denmark for five years, but can now barely remember any Danish. On with the podcast!

Sharon Unsworth: Children say their first word when they are about one year old. And before they reach 18 months, they’ve usually already glued two words together to make the first mini sentence. At least that’s what the average child does, because just like many of those other milestone moments, such as the first step or the first tooth, there can also be big differences between children when it comes to their language development. Some children produce the first word at nine months, which is very early, whereas others might only start talking half a year later. Differences between children are normal then, but when should you be concerned that your child’s language development is taking too long, and that he or she might in fact have a language delay? Are bilingual children more likely to have a language delay than monolingual children? What is a language delay anyway? And is it the same as having a developmental language disorder, a condition known to affect around one in 15 children? If you think a bilingual child might have this condition, how do you find out? In this episode of Kletsheads, we talk to Dr. Sean Pert speech and language therapist and researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK. Sean has years of clinical experience working with bilingual children and their families, and he was also responsible for the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ clinical guidelines on bilingualism. Now, because he’s based in the U.K., we talk about English as the school language, but you should, of course, replace this with whatever the school language is wherever you are. So, Dutch, if you here in the Netherlands, like me, Spanish in Spain, Norwegian and Norway, Japanese in Japan and so on.

Sharon Unsworth: Parents of bilingual children are often told that their child has a language delay. And I started by asking Sean what a language delay actually is and whether this is something other than not being able to speak English very well.

Sean Pert: It’s a really good question because having a problem with some aspect of speech or language is, we think, the most common condition that children have. So if they’re going to have a difficulty in their childhood, it’s probably with some aspects of speech, language and communication, and anything that seems to kind of deviate from the general norm people worry about. This is not just parents, but often professionals, like health visitors and teachers, get very worried when children don’t meet milestones. So I was really pleased to hear you say that children really vary. Having said that, language delay is fairly common. And this is when young children, quite young children, are slow at combining words in sentences. And they may have difficulty with things like concepts like the places of things like prepositions; in, on and under. And they have difficulty with action words, thinking about children that may be name lots of things, but don’t say what’s happening to them. So they might name things, but not be able to put a sentence together that actually talks about something that’s happening, particularly in the UK language delay, because it sounds a kind of reassuring that you think, well, they’re just a bit behind. They’re going to catch up. And actually, as as a as a clinician, as a speech language therapist, I used to use this label a lot. But then, like a lot of us, we start to think, “Well, when do we start saying your child really needs specialist help because are they behind? Is it OK to be behind when you’re three, is it OK to be blind when you’re seven?” So it starts to become more concerning as a child gets older and there’s a bigger gap between them and their peers.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. If we think about bilingual children, then we say that it’s the same as you can’t speak English very well or that you’re not up to speed yet.

Sean Pert: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question because bilingualism brings in that extra dimension. And this is historically where people have really fallen into the kind of really obvious bear traps, which is looking at a child’s language, purely from a one-language perspective. I always say to my students, “If you parachute made the middle of Brazil and I don’t speak Portuguese, have I suddenly got a language disorder because I don’t speak Portuguese and everyone else does? Well, no, I just haven’t developed that additional language.” But I think we do that with children all the time, don’t we?

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. I think parachute might be the only way you can get to Brazil at the moment.

Sean Pert: Yeah. And I think, I mean just to keep that image in mind. In the UK, we have a fair number of children who joined us and they’ve already learnt how to speak their home language. That might be because they’ve moved to the UK or it might be because they’ve got a family that use a home language other than English. And it’s interesting that we call those children bilingual because I say, well, no, they’re monolingual in a language other than English and they are potentially bilingual, but they really haven’t had an opportunity to learn English yet. So why are we calling them bilingual? And it’s this attitude that English is the only language that is important to the UK and that galling not only to the Welsh and the Scottish Gaelic speakers, but also the large numbers, the millions of people who do speak a home language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. Language delay, that is one term that’s often used as maybe the more general term, and then we also have developmental language disorder.

Sean Pert: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: So what is that and what is the difference between the two?

Sean Pert: We tend to say that children are delayed, because they might be a late bloomer up to about two years of age. So suddenly children can go from virtually nothing to catching up to their peers. Once they start to get to between five and seven years old, it becomes increasingly less likely that they’re going to spontaneously recover. So rather than a delay, we would start to say that we think they’ve probably got a developmental language disorder. But that’s a gross simplification, because we’d obviously need to do a range of assessments and observations and also rule out all the things that might be causing problems with the acquisition of of language skills, just to make sure that we have got the right diagnosis. And it’s a bit hard. It’s not like a medical condition where you can do a scan or a blood test. It’s a profile, really. It’s a profile of the child or young person’s abilities. And this is why it’s so time consuming and kind of causes people difficulties, because I can’t just see somebody for, say, an hour in clinic and say, “You’ve got DLD.” I need to see them with their peers, maybe observe them in school, talk about their pathway so far and how they communicate with people who know them really well and things like, you know, we’ve got other things like selective mutism where children might choose not to speak in certain settings. So we’ve got lots of things to rule out first before we can get to that DLD. People hang onto the idea that maybe bilingualism causes a difficulty. It really never does. Never, ever, ever. And one of the guidelines for the Royal College Speech and Language Therapists here in the UK is that bilingualism never contributes or causes a speech and language disorder. And the thing is, for me, the elephant in the room here is poverty. A lot of children live in poverty. And whether they’re white monolingual English speakers or French speakers or Italian speakers or Urdu speakers, they’re going to be negatively affected by those socioeconomic conditions. People think, “if my child is born with a hearing impairment, that’s going to have a big impact on their future if I don’t sort it out.” It is as toxic to your development if you are living in poverty. We can measure children’s vocabulary, school age entry and predict if they’ll go to university because it has this concertina effect through their careers.

Sharon Unsworth: I think you’ve mentioned a few things already, but maybe you can just give us a quick round up of the kind of telltale signs that you should look for as a parent, that your child might have DLD.

Sean Pert: At any age, if you are concerned, then you should at least talk to a professional or go on a website and find out some kind of information about what you think children should typically do. A lot of people compare children with other children, especially their own children, which is kind of OK. But you might have had… your first child might be a really great language acquirer, and we know that girls tend to be slightly quicker than boys at certain stages and then they catch up. So it’s kind of hard to compare children like the like. And we talked about individual differences earlier, but roughly speaking, between 12 and 18 months children should be using their first words and from their first words, they should be very quickly acquiring tens and hundreds of first words. By about two years, as you said in your introduction, children start to combine words and they do this not accidentally, actually. They start to see that they can get more mileage, more meanings if they use two words together rather than just one. And they tend to do this with words they hear a lot in their environment and things that they interact with.

Sharon Unsworth: So basically, if if you’re listening to this and you think, “I’m not sure that my child is doing that around the age that was just mentioned,” then that’s maybe a signal to think, “OK, maybe I should investigate this a bit more.”

Sean Pert: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think any professional would be annoyed at being asked about, “Should I be worried about this?” As children get older, it should be more obvious that there’s a there’s a small gap. There might be a big Gulfam between that and that kind of life experience and their peers. And what they can say so by three should be really talking about lots of things in their life. You know, dog is eating your dinner movies, washing the car, Dad’s cooking the dinner, you know, those kind of things that they see every day. There’s this big myth that we talk to give a message or to ask for things. And people say, oh, babies talk and children talk because they want things. Of course they they want to ask things. And I don’t mean nonsense. Children talk because they’re sociable and they want to take turns in this wonderful game of communication. So the first things that most children say is higher, higher ground level.

Sharon Unsworth: That was my daughter’s first word.

Sean Pert: Was it eally?

Sharon Unsworth: For those of you who are not from the north of England, like Sean and me, “Hiya,” as you probably guessed, means “hello.” Sean explained that using language socially like this, so to make contact with other people, is something else you can look for as a parent if you’re worried about your child’s language development.

Sean Pert: So if your child is kind of doing the social things and joining in and has lots of beautiful pretend play, but maybe isn’t using the language that matches it, then I would be concerned. I mean, a good example was I saw a little girl. She was she was wonderfully social. She brought me toys to show me. She showed me what she did with a doll house and she showed me what her family did in the evening all through play. She had no language to describe that, and because she was over three and a half, I was really concerned about her because she wasn’t able to describe those simple things that she was genuinely interested in.

Sharon Unsworth: In a minute, we’ll talk about diagnosing these kinds of problems with bilingual children, which I think presents a host of other challenges as well. First, we’re going to hear from our Kletshead of the week.


Kletshead of the Week

Naia: My name is Naia Hazel, Naia Koto Hazel and I am 10 years old, I live in the Northeast and I speak English and Japanese.

Sharon Unsworth: English and Japanese. Who do you speak English with and who do you speak Japanese with?

Naia: I speak English with normally my dad and my brother and then Japanese my mum, really.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you got any family in Japan?

Naia: Yeah, I’ve got my granddad and then I’ve got my aunty and uncle, which I always speak Japanese with.

Sharon Unsworth: I’m guessing your grandpa, he can’t speak English can he, or can he?

Naia: He only says “Hello, you are very cute.”

Sharon Unsworth: So that you have to speak Japanese to him.

Naia: Yeah. There’s no other way.

Sharon Unsworth: No. And do you speak to them very often?

Naia: No, not really. Because I don’t see them or we don’t really Zoom together because it’s a different time. So a different time here when it’s a different time there and it’s just I never really see them much.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you been to Japan?

Naia: Yes. I went to Japan last year with my mum in February and I saw them then.

Sharon Unsworth: And what’s it like in Japan with everything written in Japanese around you?

Naia: Yeah, I sometimes can’t read some stuff because I’m still learning, but some things I can stop reading now because I’m still learning it. It’s just a whole new world.

Sharon Unsworth: A whole new world. And tell me, what’s it like to learn to read in Japanese? Because it’s quite different from English, isn’t it?

Naia: Yeah, it’s difficult because there’s three ways of writing. So there’s hiragana, hiragana and then there’s katakana and then this kanji. Sometimes it could be hard, but when you get the hang of it, you just start to flow and the rhythm.

Sharon Unsworth: Where are you learning to read Japanese?

Naia: I go to Japanese school on Saturdays and my mum teaches me at home.

Sharon Unsworth: And what is it like to go into Japanese school?

Naia: It’s nice because you get to make new friends, you get to learn new stuff. You may think “Ah, it’s school on a Saturday!” It’s actually very fun and entertaining.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, that’s good, because I could imagine a lot of people would think, “oh, a school on a Saturday as well?” Which language do you prefer speak?

Naia: That’s a hard question. I am. I like speaking both. Yeah. I don’t think I can say which I like speaking more, like it’s just different. So sometimes Japanese comes in my head before English and sometimes English comes in my head before Japanese. So it just keeps crossing over.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha, that’s interesting, isn’t it, how that happens.

Naia: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Does that sometimes make you say things differently or say things you don’t mean to or?

Naia: Yeah, sometimes because sometimes I copy what my mum says and sometimes those things I say aren’t very appropriate.

Sharon Unsworth: Tell me more, that sounds interesting!

Naia: Yeah, it’s uhm. So I’ve heard this new word. I just say, oh this sounds nice. So I just start saying it, and it’s actually a bad word, so I don’t use it again.

Sharon Unsworth: I’m sure your mum doesn’t say lots of bad words.

Naia: No, only one. She’s said, “Oh, I dropped this. Oh no!” And then she says, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Some word that you’re not going to repeat. So is it important for you to be able to speak both English and Japanese?

Naia: Yeah, it probably is, because when I’m older, I want to live in both countries, maybe some years in Japan, some years in England. Then keep swapping over.

Sharon Unsworth: So you’re planning an international life.

Naia: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: So when you’re older, you think you’ll speak both languages?

Naia: Yeah, I want to speak both languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And imagine if you become a mum, if you have children, which language would you speak to your children?

Naia: Well, I would probably normally speak English, but I would like to teach them some Japanese, because then they can communicate with my mum.

Sharon Unsworth: And what’s your favourite word in Japanese?

Naia: My favourite word. Well, somewhat, I still don’t know.

Sharon Unsworth: But of all the words, you know,

Naia: Of all the words I know… Koto, Kottoor, Koto, so it’s an instrument. And my middle name is Niya, Koto, Hazel. It’s a string instrument that you play and it’s kind of like a harp, but it’s kind of on the floor.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, that sounds interesting. And can you play that instrument?

Naia: No, I haven’t actually seen it in real life. I’ve only seen it on the Internet and heard it.

Sharon Unsworth: what language do you dream in?

Naia: And I dream both really. When I’m sleeping, I sometimes talk and my mum and dad always tell me what language I’m saying it in. I guess I, I speak both languages in my dreams.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha, I was going to say, how do you know, but now you’ve got a good way of knowing, right, if you talk in your sleep. You know, in different languages, animals make different sounds, right. So, so know in English a cow says “moo,” right.

Naia: Oh yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And then in Dutch, it says, “boe.”

Naia: What’s a frog in English?

Sharon Unsworth: Gribbit.

Naia: Gribbit. Yeah, gribbit. And in Japanese it’s “kero kero.”

Sharon Unsworth: Kero kero?

Naia: Yeah, kero kero.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s funny, isn’t it, how some languages hear it differently? So can you teach me anything else in Japanese?

Naia: What would you like to know? I may not know everything, but.

Sharon Unsworth: oh, I don’t know. How can I say I live in Holland and I am 46 years old.

Naia: Watashi wa Oranda ni sunde ite, yonjuuroku sai desu.

Sharon Unsworth: All right, let’s start with the first bit.

Naia: Okay so, “watashi wa.”

Sharon Unsworth: Watashi wa

Naia: Watashi wa Orando ni.

Sharon Unsworth: Watashi wa Orando ni.

Naia: Yeah. Means I live in. Orando ni sunde ite.

Sharon Unsworth: Orando ni sun nete?

Naia: Sunde ite.

Sharon Unsworth: Sunde ite. I think we should leave it at.

Naia: Quite hard.

Sharon Unsworth: It is quite hard if you’ve never done it before, isn’t it. So I know that you lived in Denmark, didn’t you, when you were younger?

Naia: Yeah, I lived there for five years. I was born there.

Sharon Unsworth: And could you speak Danish then?

Naia: Yes, I actually… All I did was speak Danish, but now it’s drifted away.

Sharon Unsworth: So can you remember anything in Danish or not?

Naia: I can only say hi, my name is Naia.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, do you want to say that for me?

Naia: Hi, mit navn er Nia. That’s all.

Sharon Unsworth: Really? Isn’t that funny how that happened?

Naia: Yeah but yeah. But I, like, I can say my favorite bread.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh what’s that then?

Naia: Hopewell.

Sharon Unsworth: What kind of bread is that?

Naia: It’s kind of seeds inside and it’s not like a normal bread that you eat here. It’s kind of lots of seeds clumped together. But then that’s the bread part. Yeah. I love it.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm. Sounds delicious. And if you can you tell me the name of your favorite food in Japanese or your favorite Japanese food.

Naia: Udon.

Sharon Unsworth: I know that is the noodle’s, right?

Naia: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: I love Japanese food. So one last question. What’s the best thing about being bilingual?

Naia: The best thing about being bilingual is… it’s kind of like showing off. You’ve got a skill that you only have that you can say, “Oh, did you know that I can speak Japanese? Oh, and I can I’m bilingual. I can speak two languages.” And you can you can communicate. So when you go to different countries, so say if I go to Japan and I know nothing, it’d be kind of useless going I want to go into a supermarket by going to the beauty store or something. So you need to actually read the signs and it helps, really.

Sharon Unsworth: Really cool. So you’re a bit special. So we always end by asking you to say thank you and goodbye.

Naia: Arigato. Mata kondo ne.

Sharon Unsworth: Arigato, mata kondo ne, Naia.

Sharon Unsworth: Today, we’re talking with Sean Pert from the University of Manchester, and a speech and language therapist, and we’re talking about how you know whether you’re bilingual child has a language delay or developmental language disorder. We’ve talked now about what their developmental language disorder is and you’ve given us some clear guidelines as to the things to look for when to maybe genuinely be worried and to seek help. They hold for monolingual and bilingual children, of course. Now, is developmental language disorder more frequent in bilingual children than monolingual children? Is it always the seven percent, irrespective of the number of languages you speak?

Sean Pert: It’s not more common. There’s no reason for any speech and language condition to be more frequent in bilingual families. But what can happen is that children have later referrals because people might not recognize that there is a difficulty. So I would tend to be slightly err on the side of caution and encourage people to refer children earlier, because speech, language therapist and other professionals really don’t mind reassuring parents. I love it when a parent comes and says, “I’m a little bit worried” and I go, “They’re doing some beautiful sentences in their home language or they’re code switching beautifully. I’m really not worried at all that they’re really communicating very nicely to this age.” That’s a really good use of time, because then I can say, you know, “If in six months’ time or if in a year’s time they’re not producing short narratives or slightly longer sentences, then come see me again.” So I think I would rather do that than see, say, a seven-year-old that’s just been left because which is more common. People have said, “Oh, it’s because he’s bilingual.” And he’s got to seven, eight years old and this child can’t put a simple sentence together. And people are playing that on bilingualism. I’m saying, well, really, any child who can’t put a sentence together over the age of three and a half, four, I’m really going to start to be concerned about that right. Now, the key thing here is, is a sentence can be – a spoken sentence can be in any language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Sean Pert: So sometimes people will refer children to me simply because they don’t speak English. And my first question to parents is, “What’s he like at home?” and if they say, “Oh, yeah, he’s fine, he never shuts up, he’s talking really lovely sentences. He talks about what he’s doing and playing.” I’m like, oh, I’m not concerned about that anymore. Because the ability to speak English is not an impairment. It’s just that they haven’t spent enough time as an additional language learner. So, you know, it takes a long time to learn an additional language, because it takes a long time to learn your first language. You know, you take the first three and a half, four years of your life learning the basics of language. And then people expect bilingual children to go into a nursery or a school and learn English in, what, six months, really? I think the thing that is really interesting is that children are incredibly good at learning language.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, yeah.

Sean Pert: And British politicians have a lot to answer for because they say children should speak English. And I don’t disagree with them. But where I do disagree with them is learning to English should not involve losing your home language.

Sharon Unsworth: Absolutely.

Sean Pert: If you speak another language, you can see that the word for ‘chair’ has nothing to do with the sounds ‘ch’ and ‘air.’ It can be a completely different set of sounds. And then you get the idea. It’s really easy to then learn a second, third or even fourth language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. Sounds like another good topic for a podcast, for another episode.

Sean Pert: It does.

Sharon Unsworth: Going back to DLD though. So if you’ve been diagnosed with DLD in one language, does that mean you have it in the other one too?

Sean Pert: What you really need to think about is that what does developmental language disorder mean. So what it means is, you have a problem analyzing language full stop, regardless of what shape or form that language is in. It’s a bit like saying, are you deaf in both languages? Well, of course, because it’s affecting your hearing system, what your language acquisition system is impaired. So, no matter which language you are exposed to, whether exposed to one language or three, that impaired language acquisition process means that you will have greater difficulty than children without that impairment.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So that that segways quite nicely to my next question, which is, if you think your child, your bilingual child, might have DLD, do you need to have them assessed in both languages or if it’s established for English, is that enough?

Sean Pert: If you are mainly speaking a home language, you should be assessing that language first. If you are speaking two languages at home and one of them’s English, then you need them both assessed because you need a full picture. You don’t want just an English picture. And even if a child only started to learn English, you would expect then, my prediction as the therapist would be like “Well, I’m going to see lots of language in home language and maybe a little bit of English.” But if I’m seeing no English, well, that really- they’re having problems in decoding English. And the other thing about that is that speech language therapists use standardized tests and standardized tests are basically saying, I’m going to compare your child with hundreds or perhaps thousands of children who have only ever spoken English. And you’ve got to ask, is that fair? And of course, the answer is no. Your child is a bilingual child. They are neither monolingual Dutch nor monolingual English, neither monolingual Polish nor monolingual Russian. So you can’t compare them to either of those. So that’s why we tend to use much more descriptive assessments. So the assessments I devised for working with Pakistani heritage were in home language. We would accept code switching and in fact, the children who don’t code switch we were more concerned about because actually typically developing bilingual children code switch very freely and they increase the amount of code switching, which is a sign that they know how to manipulate language.

Sharon Unsworth: I think that depends on the community as well, right?

Sean Pert: It certainly does. And that’s what you’ve got to look at what’s normal and expected. So that’s one of the questions I’d be asking, really is what’s normal, what’s expected, what input is the child hearing? And I think you’ve these multiple factors mean that this adds to the complexity of assessment. Now, I think that’s fascinating and that’s why I love working with bilingual families. But a lot of speech language therapists receive very little training about bilingualism. And if they have knowledge, they’ll have learnt that postgraduate or from their own clinical practice, things like the Royal College and ASHA in America and so forth are trying to promote a much more equitable training and postgraduate training for therapists. But most therapists feel at sea working maybe alongside an interpreter and in languages that they don’t speak.

Sharon Unsworth: So if you have a bilingual child and you’re worried about the language development, then there’s no harm in talking to a speech language therapist and asking them to have a chat with your child to try and figure out if he or she has a developmental language disorder or is still in the process of learning English or whatever the main language is wherever you are. If your child has a developmental language disorder, she’ll have it in both languages. And so it’s important that when she’s assessed both of these languages are taken into account. This is the only way a speech language therapist can establish the full picture when it comes to your child’s language skills. Now, that’s all well and good, but many, if not most speech language therapists won’t be able to speak your child’s other language, what we’ve been referring to as their home language. I asked Sean, given that this is the case, how we can reasonably expect speech language therapists to be able to do this.

Sean Pert: People say to me, oh, wouldn’t it be great if we had bilingual speech language therapists. But Manchester City as a vibrant city has, you know, in excess of 200 languages, maybe 300 languages. So there’s never going to be a speech therapist that speaks 300 languages. So we can put that to one side. So all speak to language therapists need the skill of working alongside an interpreter and you’ll note I say work alongside an interpreter because these are valuable team members. I really flinch when people say use an interpreter. I mean, I use a spoon. I don’t use an interpreter. Interpreting is really very complex and sophisticated.

Sharon Unsworth: So do people have always have access to interpreters or in other cases where that’s just not going to happen? Because I could imagine if you don’t live in somewhere like Manchester where, you know, there are larger communities, speakers of different languages, how do you access an interpreter? Are you entitled to be able to do that?

Sean Pert: Yes, it’s incredibly important that people understand that working with interpreters is not optional. Now, in the UK, as an adviser for the Royal College, I’ve had therapists say to me, my manager says that it costs too much money and I’ve found that manager and gone, “You are breaking clinical practice. This is essential and potentially illegal because the law in the UK says that we shouldn’t act to discriminate against people.” And actually, you really can’t deliver an accurate diagnosis just assessing in English. So it’s absolutely essential. Ultimately, if I’m interviewing a parent, are they likely to be more comfortable to tell me more information about their language use in that language? Absolutely they are. And I think as well, if you do work in just English, you’re giving the family the signal that only English is important.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Sean Pert: And an English is already incredibly high status. I mean, English is the language of the web. It’s the language of pop music, of it’s the language of films. We don’t need to promote English. They’re going to want to speak English. What we do need to encourage is people to speak their home language. So for me, if I assess a child and meet a family without an interpreter, I’m saying to them, “I don’t care about your own language. All I care about is English.” Whether I say that specifically or they just get that impression.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Sean Pert: Families already have this impression. They apologize for using other languages. I’ve had clients say, “Oh, I think it’s the bilingualism that’s caused this language problem.” And I go, you know, you’re older son that’s kind of slumped over his phone in the corner being, you know, a typical teenager. Does he speak both of your languages?” “Oh, yes, beautifully.” “So if if it worked with him, why do you think it would have a negative impact on your child?” So it’s just interesting that people absorb these, frankly, racist attitudes to lower status languages and think that they are useless.

Sharon Unsworth: So then as a parent, if you go to speech language therapist because you’re concerned about your child and your speech language therapist is only interested in or only willing to test or assess your child in English, what should you do?

Sean Pert: Well, I think the first thing is to just straight up before you even go, best practices that the therapist would make contact to you and really want to check the language because a lots of languages and misreported particularly minority languages. So in the UK, we have lots of Pakistani heritage families and everyone will tell a white person that they speak Urdu. Hardly anybody speaks Urdu. Some do. It’s quite a posh high status language, Urdu. And, you know, if I get the wrong interpreter, that’s a complete waste of time.

Sharon Unsworth: So basically, you should be expecting that before you even have any kind of assessment, contact has been made and a conversation has been had about the other language, right?

Sean Pert: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: If you’re a go to speech language therapist and you get told your child is performing below expectations, and that’s based on norms from a standardized test and that test was inevitably based on a monolingual population. Again, their alarm bells should be ringing.

Sean Pert: Absolutely. I would seriously question that. And also, if you think about it. If had, particularly for young children under three, if I have a class full of 40 under-three-year-olds that have just started being exposed to English, let’s say seven percent of those children have DLD, but the rest are just typical additional language learners. If I serve them in English, all of them can say virtually nothing. So which ones have DLD, and which ones are just normal language learners that have not had enough time in English? If you have a developmental language disorder, you will absolutely have the same difficulties in all the languages that the child speaks. To get an accurate picture, we work holistically. We always say we work holistically, we work with families, we work with the whole person. How can you know the whole person? If every child of any age from school, from nursery starter through to 6 to 18 year olds, every one of those children and young people spend more time at home than they do in school settings. So how can you possibly know about their language function if you’re only seeing the school setting language?


Let’s Klets!

Sharon Unsworth: In every episode of Kletsheads, we talk to a parent or teacher about their experiences with bilingual children.

Mari Varsányi: My name is Mari Varsányi. I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and I work as an educational consultant and trainer.

Sharon Unsworth: And what exactly is that? An educational consultant and trainer? What do you do?

Mari Varsányi: Good question. My field of intercultural competence and inclusive education.

Sharon Unsworth: What do you mean by intercultural competence? Because I’m not sure all our listeners will understand what exactly that involves.

Mari Varsányi: So basically, that’s any kind of skills, knowledge, attitudes, understanding that you would need whenever you are in culturally diverse settings. So one of the problems I’m involved in is actually a specialization within a teacher training programme and especially with age, and focuses on future teachers in diverse contexts.

Sharon Unsworth: How long have you been doing this?

Mari Varsányi: So, well, this is only part of what I’m doing. So I’ve been in the field of intercultural education since 2009, 2010. Back then, I was still studying in Budapest, Hungary, which is where I was born and raised.

Sharon Unsworth: And I know that recently you helped set up a bilingual primary school in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. So that’s where children learn English and Dutch as a language of instruction. There’s also room for the home languages. And I know that you were instrumental in making room for those home languages. Can you tell us a bit more about that school and what you did?

Mari Varsányi: The the name of the school is DENISE, De Nieuwe Internationale School Esprit. DENISE was born out of the idea that you wanted to give newly arrived immigrants a full programme. And that is in contrast to the language programme in which they would basically be put into intensive, almost non-stop Dutch learning programmes without much attention on the other subject. I worked there as a curriculum coordinator, as an English teacher, as an English as an additional language tutor, and also later as an intercultural competence coordinator across the entire school, primary and secondary. And so within all of these functions, these roles, I could experiment with intercultural competence and with giving space to cultural diversity.

Sharon Unsworth: Linguistic diversity, so different languages are obviously a big part of cultural diversity, too. So can you give us an example of what kind of backgrounds are we talking about that the children had in the classes that you’ve taught?

Mari Varsányi: The actual data that we had was from the secondary school. And I believe in 2016 we had something like 35 different languages spoken at the school, partly newly arrived immigrants and refugees. But we also had the more expat population that it would be called, and we also had Dutch students that simply wanted a more international education.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s a very mixed bag and I can imagine as a teacher that can feel and probably is rather challenging. I’m imagining that the levels of English and Dutch differ quite a lot across children within an individual classroom. So what concrete tips have you got then for schools and teachers to to address this?

Mari Varsányi: I find it interesting because you also you also use the word challenging. And I do I do realize that that is how it often feels. But I don’t think I personally ever experienced that as a challenge and I always saw that more isn’t as an opportunity.

Sharon Unsworth: That would be my perspective, too. But I’m sure there are many people listening who think, you know, “Well, I have a class with lots of children from different backgrounds, and I don’t really know what to do with them.” Tell us how you make an opportunity out of what for many people is a challenge.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s very recognizable, right. I have also seen several colleagues struggle with that. I just wanted to share how I personally never experience it that way. My basic tip to colleagues and to any teacher in the multilingual setting would be to dare to go for multilingualism and to dare to give space to multilingualism. I would like to offer five very simple things which are just a way to start. And so my first tip would be to hang up welcome posters. These are typically posters saying welcome, hello, or maybe how are you in all the languages that are present in the school. My experience is that parents and students also are more than happy to contribute to making this poster. And so you as a teacher actually do not need to even bother with the creating of the poster itself. You can just ask some volunteers to make it for you. And so my second tip would be also very practical to label items and concepts in in all the languages present. You can do this in two different ways. If you are working with young students, so thinking the beginning of primary school, or perhaps if you have students that have just joined your school and they do not yet have a shared language with you as their teacher, you can ask them to just walk around in the classroom or perhaps in the entire school and label items in any language that they do speak, that they do write. And this way, you help your students show what they are able to do and not only focus on what they are not yet able to do. However, you as their teacher can also walk around the edge, for example, and in our case, the Dutch labels to these labels. And by doing this, you also create a learning opportunity for your students. So this is another really simple idea. So basically, by doing these simple activities, you can you can raise your students involvement.

Sharon Unsworth: So what’s number three then?

Mari Varsányi: Number three is explore your students language repertoire. What we have been looking at so far, and number one, into our more global ways to give space to multilingualism. However, what you can also do is to zoom in on your individual students and to look at their individual language repertoires. And I have two simple activities that can help you do this. One of them is this body outline activity, which some of you might be familiar with and what students doing this activity is they choose a color for each language that they speak. They also create a legend showing which color stands for which language. And then they go on and they colour in their language outline, showing where each language belongs in their body.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So it could be you know, I work hard at school in Dutch, for example. So Dutch is in my head, but I give cuddles to my mum and dad in Spanish so I colour in the heart with the Spanish colors. Something like, is that what we mean?

Mari Varsányi: Exactly.

Sharon Unsworth: And what’s the what’s the second one then for this activity?

Mari Varsányi: I create a Venn diagram which is basically a couple of circles that partially overlap. And I ask my students to draw one circle for every language that they actively use, OK? And then to make sure that these languages, that these circles all overlap somewhere. And so they would then think of activities that they do in their languages, such as paint, dream, play, sing, whatever. And then they see in which languages they would do those activities. And often they will find that they actually do an activity, such as speak, in all of their languages. And so this would actually come in the part that overlaps. However, they will also find that they might play in only one language. And so they themselves also get a clearer idea of themselves and their languages. And then later, this is also something that they can share with each other. Number four is to send out vocabulary. If you are going to focus on a new topic in the upcoming weeks or maybe even month, at the very beginning of the topic, you can create the vocabulary list listing the main concepts, the main words that your students are going to need in the target language. You then send this list home and you ask the parents to discuss these words with their children in the first languages or home languages, and this helps the students come prepared. So the students feel familiarized themselves with the main concepts in a language that they feel comfortable with. They will also have already seen the list of words in the target language. And so they just have a better chance at following the curriculum once they do come to school.

Sharon Unsworth: And I can imagine that right now, when many countries around the world are in the middle of a lockdown where children are not at school and they’re at home and parents are having to help their children do homework in a language that they don’t really know, there’s such a vocabulary list could also be quite useful, right, for the parents too to help, you know, facilitate that process, to help help their children, as it were. Absolutely. So what’s your fifth and final step then.

Mari Varsányi: To let students prepare for an activity, for an assignment in the language of their choice. And the reason I find it’s important is that I know from my own experience and also my experience as a teacher, that when we ask our students, our multilingual students, to show us what they know, only in the target language, they cannot actually show us what they know. They’re only able to show us what they are able to show us in the target language. And that is not necessarily the same as what they know and what they are able to do in other languages. And so with the students, perhaps from the age of 10 and upwards, you can let them do research for an activity in any language. But you can also let them write the first draft for an assignment, for an essay perhaps, or practice writing a speech in another language. And eventually they will still need to do the final assignments in the target language, but the preparation process can really help them in the final outcome. And this is something that I have experienced myself as a teacher. So I had this example when a student created and practiced and wrote the speech in Russian, and then he delivered the speech in front of the class in English. And this was a student who was usually hard to motivate. He was struggling with English. And so he would kind of become the clown in the group, you know, he would take on the world because he found it difficult. And as soon as I let him preparing Russian, he just felt comfortable. So he no longer had to play the clown and he could allow himself to work seriously. And so what I got eventually was a great speech because he had all the opportunity to prepare his speech well in Russian. And finally, this also helped his level of English during the presentation.

Sharon Unsworth: Great. So there are five very concrete steps with many practical examples of what you can do then as a teacher to make space for bilingualism in the classroom or in the school more generally. So we’re both based in the Netherlands. What do you think the future looks like for bilingual children here?

Mari Varsányi: I have to say, I am both frustrated and hopeful. I am hopeful because I see much more interest in multilingualism. However, what I also see is quite a slow reaction when it comes to schools’ reality. And this is what frustrates me. I think that schools will need to adapt faster. The research is there, the general understanding of multilingualism being something that can be appreciated, something that needs to be given space to, I think that this idea is more or less becoming established as a norm. And I think that now we quite quickly need to take action and look into implementation. And in implementation I really find these five best practices over these five first steps to be very helpful. And I would encourage anybody in the school, be it a teacher or a school head to just go ahead and start with those five steps and then later they can figure out their best. Do not withhold yourself from giving them a space because you don’t know where to start, to just start and you can get there.

Sharon Unsworth: Some great tips there from Mari about how to make use of bilingual children’s home languages in the classroom. Mari’s written a great blog about the five steps that she talked about here. So if you want to find out more and see some photos of the various assignments that she spoke about, then take a look at the show notes. You’ll find those either in your podcast app or at our website Kletsheads podcast dot org.

Sharon Unsworth: If you’re a teacher with bilingual children in your class and you can send about the development in the school language, as Sean said, it’s important if you want a full picture to try and figure out what’s going on in the home language too. You can do this by asking the parents how they think the child is getting on when it comes to their Urdu, Polish, Italian, or whatever language or languages it might be.

Sean Pert: Not just sort of a general question, but saying, you know, if the child is four years old, you know, can they tell you a little story about what they’ve done to school? Can they you know, can they relate that information? Can they tell you about what they did at home? Even when I work in a home language. I really want to know the real details of what a child is using senses together. How can I possibly do that just in English alone? So it’s really, really vital that we get a really close and accurate picture of the child’s full language ability.

Sharon Unsworth: That sounds like a perfect way to end. Thank you.

Sean Pert: Thank you very much. It’s been lovely, really has.

Sharon Unsworth: So here’s a quick summary of what Sean told us in this episode. Having a developmental language disorder is something different from not being able to speak the school language very well. Bilingual children are just as likely or unlikely to have such a disorder as their monolingual classmates. Remember, DLD, or developmental language disorder, occurs in one in 15 children. That’s seven percent of the population. If you’re a parent and you’re worried about your child’s language development, get in touch with a speech language therapist and ask them to have a chat with your child. And if you’re speech language therapist, make sure you assess both the child’s languages as a teacher. Any concerns about a child’s progress in the school language should also involve a check-in with the parents about what’s going on at home. As I said in the introduction, Sean was involved in writing the clinical guidelines on bilingualism for the UK’s Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. And you’ll find a link to these in the show knows if you’re in the Netherlands, you can also find a link in the show notes to the Dutch Bilingual Speech and Language Therapy Association. On their website, you can find a map showing speech and language therapists in the Netherlands who can assess children in languages other than Dutch. That’s it for now. Next month, we’ll be back with an episode on language mixing. If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to Kletsheads podcast dot org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favorite podcast app. Make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say in Dutch: tot het volgende keer.

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

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