Language Difference Vs Disorder

Within the US, there is an increasing amount of bilingual children who are inaccurately being labeled as exhibiting a language disorder, when in fact, they are only presenting with a language difference.

But what does this even mean?

Kohnert (2012), explains that “identifying a communication disorder in a bilingual individual requires careful consideration of the multitude of factors that influence communication skills.

True communication disorders will be seen in all languages used by an individual; however, a skilled clinician must appropriately account for the process of language development, language loss, the impact of language dominance fluctuation, and the influence of dual language acquisition and use when differentiating between a disorder and a difference.

Language dominance may fluctuate across a peron’s lifespan based on how the language is used as well as the language history.”

How do we Distinguish a Language Disorder vs a Language Difference?

  • A language difference is present when an individual speaks a different language or dialect than the teacher, SLP, the referrer, or the community.
  • Identifying difference vs a disorder involved differential diagnosis. A teacher and clinician must be able to rule out a language difference as a cause for presenting areas of difficulty.
  • The ability to distinguish between a difference and disorder is a fundamental skill that every SLP needs to have and should be able to work collaboratively with teachers.

Bilingual & Multilingualism

• 2 Types of bilingual language acquisition

• Simultaneous – Significant exposure to two languages before the age of 3.

• Sequential – Significant exposure to two languages after the age of 3.

• Balanced bilingualism – An equally strong linguistic ability in both languages across all modalities (speaking, comprehension, literacy, etc.)

Bilingualism & Language Confusion is a MYTH!

There isn’t any scientific evidence that has proven that bilingualism will lead to language confusion. 

Typical Bilingual Language Development

• Silent period: During acquisition of a second language, there may be a period of silence by the child. This occurs as the child is focused on comprehending and learning the new language. 

The silent period is a completely typical developmental process for bilingual individuals, and does not indicate the presence of a delay. This period may last from 3-6 months (Roberts, 2014).

• Code-switching: Code switching is a natural phenomenon of bilingual speakers, in which individuals mix vocabulary or syntax from two or more languages. 

Code switching is totally normal for any individuals and is not inherently bad. Mixing of two languages can be a function of cultural background, and is an acceptable and expected practice in some groups.

Code-switching is ruled-based and follows grammatical rules of both languages being used.

• Language transfer: Language transfer can occur across all modalities of language such as : Phonological, Morphosyntactic, & Semantic/lexical.

• Language attrition/loss: Language attrition refers to the loss of skills in an individual’s L1 as they are learning their L2. This is a typical pattern for many bilingual individuals in the U.S, who are educated in monolingual English environments. 

Although bilingual speakers may not entirely lose their L1, they may not continue to experience as rich a development of linguistic skills as they do in their L2. L1 skills may be sufficiently more developed in academic language and literacy

• Additive Bilingualism: Additive bilingualism is an important aspect of teaching English to ELLs students. In an effort to preserve the culture of the child, additive bilingualism strives to encourage families to maintain L1 in the home, provide books in multiple languages so that every student is able to read what they like, and to invite guests to explain the importance of being able to speak two languages to the students (Diaz-Rico, 2008).

Transitional bilingual education, which incorporates the use of L1 until English has been mastered, and structured English immersion, which focuses on solely teaching in the English language, are intended to teach English in the classroom, they do not support additive bilingualism because the student’s native language will eventually become replaced by English and will not be preserved (Diaz-Rico, 2008).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Two-way immersion, which can also be referred to as two-way maintenance bilingual classrooms, helps preserve student identity and motivation because the students who are learning English do not feel as if they are signaled out from the rest because everyone is learning the language.

The elements incorporated into two-way immersion have a strong relationship with those of additive bilingualism (Ada and Campoy, 2008). 

Language Dominance: Many bilingual individuals are viewed through a lens of language dominance (i.e. which language is stronger). The dominance of one language over another in a bilingual individual must be viewed through the

analysis of all modalities, including

• Expression

• Comprehension

• Reading

• Writing

Language dominance is not static; it is constantly changing over time.

Factors that can influence dominance:

• Age-matched peers who speak a given language

• Amount of exposure to languages in a variety of contexts:

• Length of time in an educational context in one language

• Continued exposure to academic language in one language or the other

• For very young students, the shift in language dominance can be rapid (within one academic year)

There are two major types of language: 

Social language: What is typically used at home is is usually: highly contextualized, grammatically less complex, non-linear, uses high-frequency words, and is centered on familiar and concrete topics. 

Academic language: Language that is typically used in school and professional setting, is decontextualized, grammatically complex, linear, and requires more advanced vocabulary. 

These two major types of language can also be referred to as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills (CALPS). There are generally two forms of communication that people use regularly, these are known as cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) and basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS).

These two forms of communication can be identified as academic English and conversational English, respectively. CALP is the essential from of language that is necessary to engage during the school day when the individual is interacting with the teacher and working on school assignments. According to Diaz-Rico (2008) classroom activities tend to be “abstract and deontextualized.”

CALP is the form of language that emphasizes comprehension, analysis, and critical thinking. On the opposite end of the spectrum we encounter the usage of BICS. In contrast to the academic English that follows a format and is used in the classroom, BICS is used for conversation. This form of communication tends to encompass slang words and other forms of conversational grammar in which there isn’t a particular order and structure that needs to be followed.

BICS is the form of communication that students may use in the playground as opposed to the classroom; in other words it’s the form of communication used daily. According to Cummins (1979, 1980) BICS is “context embedded,” by this he explains that the people who are engaging in the conversation give each other feedback. 


Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.

Cummins, J. (1980). Psychological assessment of immigrant children: Logic or intuition?   Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1, 97-lll.

Diaz-Rico, L. (2008). A course for teaching english learners. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Hambly, C., Fombonne, E.,(2012). The Impact of Bilingual Environments on Language development in children with autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Volume 42, Issue 7, pp 1342-1352.

Ohashi, J. K., Mirenda, P., Marinova-Todd, S., Hambly, C., Fombonne, E., Szatmari, P. (2012). Comparing early language development in monolingual-and bilingual-exposed young children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(2), 890-897.

Paradis, J., Crago, M. Genesee, F., Rice, M. (2003). French-English bilingual children with SLI: How do they compare with their monolingual peers? Journal of Speech. Language, and Hearing Research, 46 (Feb. 2003), pp. 113-127.

Reyes, I. (2004). Functions of code switching in schoolchildren’s conversations. Bilingual Research Journal, 28(1), 77-98.