JCPSLP Vol 18 No. 1Mar 2016

Prediction and Prognosis

Implications of language dominance for assessment of bilingual children’s

Language dominance is an important consideration in the assessment of bilingual children’s language skills. This study illustrates the impact of language dominance on noun plural marking in English for preschool English–Mandarin bilingual Singaporean children. Spoken language samples in English from 481 English– Mandarin children (236 English dominant; 245 Mandarin dominant) were elicited using a sentence-level picture description task. Results indicated significant differences in noun plural marking both for plural “-s” and quantifiers in English for English-dominant and Mandarin-dominant children. Importantly, typically developing Mandarin-dominant children did not use inflectional marking for plurality by 6 years 8 months. The data confirm that noun plural marking in English language skills Chris Brebner, Paul McCormack, and Susan Rickard Liow among English–Mandarin bilingual Singaporean children is impacted by language dominance. This illustrates the importance of obtaining accurate and detailed information on language dominance prior to assessment of children’s language skills. T he assessment of oral language skills in bilingual children is challenging because these children are not a homogenous group (Bedore & Peña, 2008; Kohnert, 2010). To conduct valid and reliable clinical assessments of bilingual children’s oral language skills, clinicians need to understand bilingual language development and each child’s individual context (Kohnert, 2010). This is particularly challenging for clinicians in Australia as there are over 400 languages spoken (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). There will potentially be different influences on the English spoken by bilingual children, and assessment processes for bilingual children need to account for their skills in all of their languages. There are known morphosyntactic differences between the English spoken by bilingual and monolingual children, including differences in inflectional morphology and tense

marking (Bedore & Peña, 2008; Kohnert, 2010) and such variability is likely to be due to second language influence and language dominance (Bedore et al., 2012). For example, in Bland-Stewart and Fitzgerald’s (2001) study of the use of Brown’s 14 morphemes in the Standard American English of 15 bilingual Hispanic preschoolers, they found use of the morphemes in English emerged in a different rank order. They concluded that monolingual English normative data should not be applied to bilingual Spanish–English children. For monolingual Standard English (StdE) speakers, plural morphemes are acquired relatively early, emerging by Brown’s stage II at approximately 30 months (Brown, 1973). This early emergence does not apply to all children bilingual in English. Jia (2003), in her longitudinal study of the acquisition of English noun plural marking in 10 US-based Mandarin–English successive bilingual children, found their plural marking to be variable. Some participants showed increased use of the morpheme over time, but did not achieve full mastery. Others showed little increase in usage. She concluded that plural marking for this population was different to that of monolingual English speakers, with language influence and dominance possibly explaining the variability. There are clearly implications for the accurate diagnosis of language impairment in bilingual populations if using similar assessment criteria to those used with monolingual English speaking children. While marking of noun plurals is usually acquired relatively early by monolingual English speaking children, this may not be the case for bilingual children. Language dominance is an important factor to consider when considering the characteristics of a child’s main language, especially as language dominance changes over time depending on factors such as amount and type of exposure, and the resultant impact on oral language skills can vary. The context for this study: Singapore Singapore is a multilingual, multicultural nation in South East Asia. English is the language of education and business, but there are four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, and both Singapore Standard English (SStdE) and Singapore Colloquial English (SCE) are spoken. Most Singaporeans are bilingual, and many are multilingual (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2010). SCE is the lingua franca in Singapore and the form of

Thisarticle has been peer- reviewed impairment morphology plurality Keywords bilingualism language dominance language

Chris Brebner (top), Paul McCormack (centre), and Susan Rickard Liow


JCPSLP Volume 18, Number 1 2016

Journal of Clinical Practice in Speech-Language Pathology

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