The notion of language difference – in contrast to language disorder or delay – is important for clinicians and researchers studying children’s language acquisition. The distinction between difference and disorder reflects the need to distinguish between a standard path of language development, that might for example be described in literature or used as a normative standard in a language assessment, and an alternative path taken by some children.
Children who differ from the standard but follow the specific trajectory of their community do not need intervention and should not be pathologized. How can researchers identify this trajectory? For languages such as English, a large volume of information has been amassed using a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods. We know what is typical and atypical for English-speaking children as they acquire their language, but for many less well-researched languages we don’t yet have this information. My research centres on exploring and understanding the different trajectories that children can take – especially in under researched languages in South Africa.
This idea of difference vs. disorder vs. delay is really helpful and in my lectures to speech language pathology students I emphasise these concepts as a way to help novice clinicians understand the diversity of children’s language they will encounter. I often explain that as children develop their language, they follow a well-worn path. The path is determined by the adults in their environment and based on the input they receive. For example, Hoff and Core (2013) focused on bilingual children and examined how the adults in a child’s environment affect language output. If parents use two languages in the home, children will acquire these two languages, and the rate and relative proficiency of their acquisition will reflect the quantity and quality of the input received from these carers.
But there are many ways to reach the same destination and not everyone follows the same path. Many children become bilingual through exposure to a second language at school, or because they have moved countries and find themselves immersed in a new language environment. Thus some children might surprise us by taking an alternative route (language difference) – but as long as they stick to a path, following their adult models who have trod the path before them, there shouldn’t be a cause for concern. In the case of delay, a child is firmly on a path but proceeding at a slower pace along it, than expected. Early intervention can help speed them up along their course.
It’s when children are not on a path, heading in the wrong direction or lost in the woods – so to speak – that we might diagnose a disorder and consider intervention is needed. Consider a child whose speech is unintelligible even for those familiar with him/her, who cannot make his/her wishes known to peers or whose language use consistently offends or defies cultural expectations. Older adults and experienced carers/parents and educators from the particular speech communities are usually skilled in knowing when to worry about a child’s communication and when certain behaviours and patterns are typical.
This can be a fine line for clinicians to navigate – not wanting to miss children who need intervention, but also not wanting to pathologize children who are developing typically for their community. Ideally we would have language assessments that have been developed and normed for all languages, dialects and speech communities – and speech and language therapists who represent a diverse array of communities, and research that looks beyond standard varieties to consider diverse children, languages and dialects.
The field of developmental sociolinguistics is focused on understanding the typical variation in children’s language development, perhaps providing a systematic mapping of all the alternative (yet still typical) routes that children can follow. Johnson and White (2020) describe this as a paradigm shift in the way in which researchers view children’s language acquisition.
But do standard varieties of languages really exist? And has anyone ever met a child acquiring a standard version of their language in a standard way? We are all shaped by unique influences and the range of what can be considered typical is surely broader than we might imagine. Further, the way that standard forms come about is often arbitrary or unfair.
In South Africa, for example, many standard varieties of languages reflect colonialism or sometimes just historical co-incidence. In the case of isiXhosa, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages, Mtsatse and Combrinck (2018) describe how early European missionaries selected varieties of isiXhosa as standard ones. Theodorus van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society lived with a tribe of isiXhosa people in 1799. He learnt the Ngqika dialect spoken by the tribe, helped develop a written form of the dialect and then translated the bible into this variety of isiXhosa (Nyamende, 1994). The Thembu and Ndlambe dialects are closely related to the Ngqika variety, and together this group are now privileged as the standard varieties of the isiXhosa language. Other dialects are regarded as non-standard.
This arbitrary way of classifying languages and differentially privileging them is problematic and upsetting for many – understandable in a country where classification and categorisation has a long and bitter history associated with the apartheid regime. In many South African classrooms teachers still express negative attitudes towards the use of ‘non-standard’ varieties, although there is some evidence of increasing acceptance of non-standard varieties in recent years (Makalela, 2018).
Returning to the framework of developmental sociolinguistics, the core assumption of the approach is:
that language is by its very nature variable, and that much of this variability is informative, as it is (probabilistically) governed by a variety of factors—including linguistic context, social or cultural context, the relationship between speaker and addressee, a language user’s geographic origin, and a language user’s gender identity. It is becoming increasingly clear that consideration of these factors is absolutely essential to developing realistic and ecologically valid models of language development (Johnson & White, 2020, p.1).
Developmental sociolinguistics acknowledges and values the variability of language acquisition. Variability is not considered as something that learners must overcome, but rather as encoding important information about speakers and contexts.
The use of standards in classic textbook studies has helped build a valuable foundation of knowledge about early language and learning. These studies have elucidated the ‘main pathway’ that children proceed along for their language acquisition but perhaps led to an erroneous belief that those paths are the only ones or are somehow more important than other routes. Although clinicians still need to distinguish between typical and disordered (or delayed) language, they might focus more on the layers of complexity present in the real world. As Johnson and White (2020) remind us, all speakers have a distinct identity and communicative goal but until relatively recently,
both perception and production experiments with children were almost entirely focused on middle to upper class (often Caucasian) children … Children from other backgrounds were occasionally considered, but, even then, they were often approached with language varieties and communication styles that were largely alien to them (and then these populations were compared to “typical” populations on their ability to communicate in these alien styles; e.g., Labov, 1972).
Although we should continue to work towards inclusive practices that treat all languages, dialects and speech communities equally, it is doubtful if we could ever have normative data and assessments that encompass every unique combination of languages and dialects. We should question commonly held views about standard varieties – how did they come about? what is their value? – and reflect on the range of what is considered typical, and the power relations between those on the main path and those on paths (supposedly) less well-travelled. As speech and language therapists our task is really to ensure that no child is lost in the woods, but we would do well to devote more energy to understanding the entire forest ecosystem – main paths and those less well traversed. And that’s another message worth sharing with future speech and language clinicians.
Hoff, E., & Core, C. (2013). Input and language development in bilingually developing children. In Seminars in Speech and Language, 34 (4), 215-226. Thieme Medical Publishers.
Johnson, E. K., & White, K. S. (2020). Developmental sociolinguistics: Children’s acquisition of language variation. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 11(1), e1515.
Makalela, L. (2018). Teaching African languages the ubuntu way: The effects of translanguaging among pre-service teachers in South Africa. Chapter in The multilingual edge of education (pp. 261–282). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Mtsatse, N., & Combrinck, C. (2018). Dialects matter: The influence of dialects and code-switching on the literacy and numeracy achievements of isiXhosa Grade 1 learners in the Western Cape. Journal of Education (University of KwaZulu-Natal), (72), 21–37.
Nyamende, A. (1994). Regional variation in Xhosa. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 26, 202–217.
- This phenomenon, along with ways in which non-standard forms could be used as a classroom resource are discussed further in the forthcoming Handbook of Literacy in Diglossia and Dialectal Contexts – Psycholinguistic and Educational Perspectives edited by Saiegh-Haddad, Laks, and McBride (Springer, forthcoming). ↑