Language problem or English as a Second Language issue?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

For the latest research, see our article about bilingual development.

One of the best things about living and working in the Inner West of Sydney is the diversity of its food. Whether it’s feasting on pho in Homebush West, chocolate and churros in Mortlake, a short stack in North Strathfield, Mediterranean charcoal chicken in Croydon Park, tandoori in Homebush, kim chi in Strathfield, French steak in Concord, pizza and pasta in Five Dock or dumplings in Ashfield, there’s something for everyone.

Of course, with locals coming from places as varied as China, Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Italy, Lebanon, Sudan and even Ballarat, we also have plenty of cultural diversity.  And with different cultures, come the sweet sounds of lots of different languages, dialects and accents.

For parents and teachers of children who speak more than one language, it can be hard to tell whether a child who is having problems communicating in English:

  • has a speech or language delay; or
  • is simply still learning English.

Speech pathologists need to be able to tell the difference because we are trained to treat speech and language delays – not to tutor in English.  Here are some of the questions we ask parents (and ourselves) to do this:

  • Does the child have problems in both languages, or only English? A true language delay/problem affects the child’s ability to learn any language.  Thus, if the child has a delay in English, but not in his or her mother tongue, it is unlikely the child has a language delay needing treatment from a speech pathologist and more likely that the child would benefit from additional help at school and/or from a teacher or tutor trained in how to teach English as a second language.
  • How long has the child been speaking English? We know children from non-English speaking backgrounds can (in the best case scenario) take around 2 years to develop basic communication skills in English and around 5-7 years to develop a “native”-like level of English.  So if the child speaks, say Mandarin, at home with her parents and only started speaking English at pre-school, we don’t expect her to speak English like her mono-lingual English-speaking peers in Kindergarten, or even in Year 3.  This does not mean she has a language delay – she’s simply acquiring English as a second language within the expected time-frame.
  • Did the child learn the two (or more) languages simultaneously or sequentially? We know that children who learn both languages simultaneously at home develop both languages in approximately the same way as a mono-lingual child develops one language.  If a child learns one language first and then starts to develop another language, he/she may have no problems whatsoever, or may have difficulties, requiring detailed investigation.
  • Have the child’s speech sounds developed differently because the speech sounds and rules used in the child’s first language are different from English speech sounds?  For example:
    •  in some Asian languages, words end in vowels, and speakers may delete final consonants in English, e.g. “li”, rather than “lip”;
    • Japanese speakers don’t recognise the difference between /r/ and /l/, sometimes leading to confusion of the sounds in English words (e.g. “glow” for “grow”);
    • in Spanish, there is no “j” sound (as in “July”), and speakers may substitute a “y” sound (e.g. “yump” for “jump”);
    • in some European and Middle Eastern languages, there is no “w” sound, and speakers may substitute “b” (e.g. “berry” for “very”) or “v” (e.g. “vie” for “why”).
  • Are the child’s syntax problems associated with the structure of his/her first language? For example:
    • in Spanish, adjectives come after nouns (e.g. the “book blue”); and
    • in some Asian languages, plurals are not formed by adding an “s” (e.g. (I saw two movie”), the verb forms of “to be” (e.g. is, are, etc) are omitted (e.g. “they dancing”), and pronouns are used differently (e.g. “s/he a girl”).

Note that standardised language and speech assessments in English are often highly inappropriate for children who speak English as a second language.  Standardised tests of these children often produce biased, distorted results.  If such tests are used at all, results should be interpreted with extreme caution and with a good knowledge of the speech sounds and language structures of the child’s first language.

Related articles:

My child is learning two languages: what do I need to know about bilingual development?

Can language development tips help ESL learners learn English?

Further reading: Dr. Celeste Roseberry-McKibbon is one of the leading experts in bilingual language development and language disorders.  She has published a lot of research, some of which is listed on her psychedelic website here.  She is also the author of Multicultural Students with Special Language Needs: Practical Strategies for Assessment and Intervention (3rd Edit.) 2008, from which I learned many of the points above.  In 2009, Speech Pathology Australia published a position paper on Working in a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Society. If you would like a copy, please contact us.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard