When I tell people that I’m a bilingual speech pathologist, I get several responses:
- “You are rare!”
- “I wish I knew Spanish.”
- “How can a kid have a speech problem in Spanish?”
- “You must get paid a lot of money!”
- “Where did you learn Spanish?”
There’s a lot of misconceptions about bilingual speech therapy and I want to dig into it and answer lots of questions over the next month.
- Native or Near-Native Proficiency in Spanish
- Cultural Competency — respect and sensitivity about cultural practices and recognizing cultural factors impacting speech
- Understanding Typical Speech and Language Development and Disorders in Both Languages and in Bilingual Individuals.
- Ability to Administer and Interpret Diagnostic Assessments in Both Languages and Bilingual Individuals.
- Ability to Provide Therapy in Both Languages and Bilingual Individuals.
So simply just knowing Spanish is not sufficient to be a bilingual speech pathologist. You need the training in communication disorders as well as training and/or experience in cultural competency.
Native or Near-Native Proficiency in Spanish
I learned Spanish as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was my college major — in fact, my major was Spanish literature. I loved learning about Pablo Neruda and Sor Juana. I’m not a native Spanish speaker as I did not start learning Spanish until after my critical language period. My first exposure to Spanish was in eighth grade when I took the class and fell in love with the language. It’s been a part of my life ever since.
I network with other bilingual speech pathologists and sometime they say things like, “I only learned Spanish at home so I don’t feel confident about my grammar.” Almost every bilingual SLP I’ve worked with feels nervous about Spanish when they haven’t grown up in a Spanish-speaking country. Many native Spanish speakers who grow up in bilingual homes do struggle with confidence in Spanish, even though they shouldn’t. I also still make errors sometimes, even though my Spanish has improved over time. Language learning is a process for us all!
It’s important that bilingual SLPs retain respect and sensitivity to people who speak another language. Sometimes I hear teachers say things like, “They should speak English.” Those kinds of comments do not display sensitivity to children’s cultural backgrounds and experience and are in fact harmful. Although I’m a white person, my husband is Chinese. During his childhood, school officials made comments to my husband’s family that they should only speak English. My in-laws took that to heart and my husband can only speak English. Because he lost the chance to speak Chinese, he was unable to communicate with his grandparents when they were alive. My husband lost a part of his cultural heritage because of his inability to speak Chinese and it’s a shame.
Bilingual speech pathologists who grow up in a bilingual home usually understand cultural competence because it’s part of their culture from birth and they do not require training. As speech pathologists, we need to be very clear about the incredible personal and professional value there is to speaking multiple languages. Welcoming a student’s cultural heritage and not attempting to influence one way or another is ethical and culturally-valuable.
Typical and Disordered Speech and Language
Graduate training in typical speech and language development and disorders is critical for the bilingual speech pathologist, but since most US graduate programs do not offer classes and training in bilingualism, it will be important for the bilingual speech pathologist to pursue continuing education credits online or in person to further and deepen understanding about bilingual language development. I wrote this post: Top 25 Bilingual Speech Therapy Grad Programs that lists the formal graduate programs available in the United States for bilingual speech pathologists. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Administration of Diagnostic Measures
It is important that a speech professional be able to make valid professional judgments about whether or not a a disorder is present and if a student requires speech therapy to remedy their concerns. For example, does a student present with a language difference or a disorder? A bilingual therapist should be able to make that determination correctly using formal and informal measures.
Providing Bilingual Therapy
A bilingual speech-language pathologist must be able to provide effective speech therapy for the bilingual student. In some cases that is providing only therapy in the native language or providing therapy in the language the child needs it most to be a successful communicator.
ASHA citations:  What It Takes to Call Yourself a Bilingual Practitioner  Knowledge and Skills Needed by Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists to Provide Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services
In my next post, I’ll write about graduate speech and language programs for bilingual speech paths to be. There are so many more than there were ten years ago!
Check out these other posts I’ve written about bilingual speech therapy for more information about bilingual speech-language pathology:
- 5 Things to Know About the Golden Rule of Bilingualism
- RTI success with Spanish speaking speech students
- 6 Advantages of Being a Non-Native Bilingual Speech Pathologist
- 5 Ways to Find Out If Your Bilingual Student Has a Speech Problem
- 5 Things to Know About Spanish Speech Therapy in the United States
- 6 Things You Never Knew about Bilingual Education
- 3 Things You Need to Know about Language Delay, Language Disorder, and Language Difference