One of the biggest sources of bias in standardized tests is the fact that the tests are written by and designed for speakers of Standard American English. Part of the work of LEADERS is to show that we live in a world full of dialectal variations and that these dialects are rule-governed linguistic systems, not evidence of a language disorder. However, in an effort to familiarize ourselves with the dialects of the communities in which we work (African American English, Hispanized English, etc) it can be easy to forget that what we see in the real world may not fit into any of the categories we study in class.
The children I work with are growing up in a vibrant community where they are frequently exposed to many dialects of English and Spanish. They may take features from different dialects and combine them in their speech. Because children speak the dialect or dialects of the community, and not necessarily a dialect out of a textbook, it is critical to be familiar with typically developing speakers of the community. And the community may be a lot smaller than you think. Where I work, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, students combine features of African American English (“She been left”), Standard American English (“She doesn’t get it”) and New York Latino/ Hispanized English (“I can go to the bathroom?”). The community in the surrounding neighborhood is heavily Hispanic with some non-Hispanic African American residents and a few Polish-American families as well. The dialect of the school mixes the three dialects mentioned previously. African American children with no Hispanic ancestry often demonstrate features from Hispanized English. An evaluator or therapist not aware of the nuances of the child’s speech community may not realize that what may appear to be phonological processes, for example, are actually due to Hispanized English influence in the child’s speech community. In contrast, where I live, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the population is composed mostly of Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean immigrants as well as African-Americans. The result is that the English of my neighborhood differs from the English spoken only a few mile,s away in the Greenpoint neighborhood.
What does this mean for speech language pathologists? It underscores the importance of knowing the typical features of the dialect of the communities we work in, even if that community is only a short distance (physically or socially) from our own communities. We need to create resource manuals documenting speech and language patterns. This will help develop our clinical judgment and enable us to make better decisions regarding children who come from diverse backgrounds. Language is a dynamic, fluid and ever changing entity. We can’t expect the speakers we work with to exist in a static world.