Normal Aspects of Language Acquisition Sometimes Misinterpreted as Signs of Language Processing Disorders

By the 2030s, say demographers, English language learners (ELLs) will account for approximately 40% of the entire school-aged population in the United States. In some areas, that projection is already exceeded—in California, for instance, 60%-70% of schoolchildren speak a language other than English as their primary language.”

Those are the opening words of an article entitled “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s ‘Normal,’ What’s Not,” at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s website (Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, Cal. State, Sacramento, and Alejandro Brice, University of Central Florida).  The article is based on information from the 1990s and contains some incorrect projections about which language groups would grow the fastest in the decades after it was written, but the general projection of the overall rate of growth in the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) and the dramatic changes it would bring is arguably still valid.

The focus of the article is not on the rapid demographic shift we have been seeing for several decades, though, but on the response of educators to dealing with language learners, an ever-increasing percentage of today’s classrooms. They wrote mainly for Speech-Language Pathologists, providing relevant information on what is normal and what is not in acquiring an additional language. The advice they gave over a decade ago, with appropriate updating in a few places, remains relevant today, but not only for Speech-Language Pathologists. Increasing numbers of classroom teachers face making decisions about the impact a child’s language proficiency has on academic development and whether to recommend that child for speech-language services.

Three Normal Language Acquisition Phenomena

The Silent Period
The ability to understand in a second (or third) language usually develops faster than the ability to speak. For this reason many language learners go through a period of time when they can understand very basic English, but cannot produce the language as well as they understand it. For some this may cause stress and an unwillingness or inability to speak at first. This period can last for several months for some children, though it passes quickly for most.

This inability to speak is sometimes taken as a sign of a language processing disorder when it is nothing more than a normal part of the process of language acquisition. Give the child time, and try to reduce stress, and you will be amazed at the results in time.

A number of years ago, a kindergarten teacher I know had a tiny Latina in her class who never uttered a word from August to December. I asked if the little girl was able to follow directions given to her in English. The teacher responded that she was. I encouraged her to make the child as comfortable as possible in her class, keep her engaged with lots of hands-on activities, and make her feel welcomed every day.

In late January the teacher came hurrying down the hall to meet me with a grin of delight:

—I ask for a volunteer to summarize the story and Lupita raised her hand. I was worried, but I decided to let her try.

—She did it! I couldn’t believe it! It’s the first time I’ve heard her say anything, and it was complete sentences.”

Lupita had come to the end of her silent period. She did not have a language disorder. She simply needed time.

Children’s Use of All Available Language Resources
English Language Learners (ELLs) frequently borrow structures from their first language to help express what they mean in the new language they are acquiring. Older research often referred to this as interference (as did Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice), but it is more accurate to see it as language learners using the resources at their disposal as they navigate unfamiliar territory.

A Spanish-speaking child may say in English, “Your book bag is more greener than mine.” There is no grammatical ending to make an adjective comparative in Spanish—nothing like the English -er. But the child has heard greenerbiggerstronger, and many other adjectives with -er in English and has grasped that this device is used when comparing things. In Spanish you have to use “mas”, the equivalent of English “more”. While the child has noticed the English -er, it still feels wrong to leave out the equivalent of “mas.” That will change with time, but for the moment the child uses all of the resource available from both languages to say “I’m comparing two things.”

This is not evidence of a language-processing problem. It’s just part of what happens when you are acquiring a new language.

Code Switching
Mixing words and phrases from one language into a sentence from another is often called code switching. We can see this happening even among fully bilingual adults functioning in a bilingual setting. It is nothing uncommon in my household to say something like, “Apúrate, we’re going to be late” (“Hurry up, we’re going to be late). Since we all speak both languages, we know we will be understood. There it’s not a problem, and we just use the first word or phrase that comes to mind.

Language learners, however, may do this even when it is not clear that everyone will understand. They simply use the resources available from their two languages when they can’t yet construct the what they want to say in only one. This does lead to misunderstandings, but it is not a language disorder.

There three phenomena (the silent period, borrowing structures from one language for another, and mixing languages present challenges for he classroom teacher, but they are not signs that a child needs Speech-Language services.