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This study showed that examining only one of a bilingual child’s languages does not provide an accurate representation of the child’s linguistic knowledge.

Background: This study investigated the performance of typically developing, bilingual Spanish-English speaking first graders on standardized receptive vocabulary tests.

Hypotheses: N/A

Methodology and Participants: Participants included 105 bilingual first graders in Miami from either middle or high SES backgrounds. The children were divided into two groups. The first consisted of children in homes where only Spanish was spoken (OSH); the second consisted of children in homes where both English and Spanish were spoken (ESH). Each group was administered both the English Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-R) and the Spanish Test de Vocabulario en Imágenes Peabody (TVIP-H).

Conclusion: On the TVIP-H, the Spanish vocabulary test, both OSH and ESH groups achieved grossly equivalent standard scores near the mean of 100 indicating average performance. On the English PPVT-R, however, children scored within the low average range; the ESH group achieved standard scores of nearly 1 standard deviation (SD) above those of the children in the OSH group. Analysis and comparison of accurate versus inaccurate individual subject performance suggested uneven and specific distribution of vocabulary items across languages; that is, lexical knowledge is separate and knowing one term in one language does not indicate that a child knows the translation to the other language. This shows that examining only one of a bilingual child’s languages does not provide an accurate representation of the child’s linguistic knowledge. Further, evaluations of early sequential bilinguals (typically developing 6-7 yrs old) via single word vocabulary tests show that these children demonstrate lower than average results in both of their languages as compared to monolingual speakers.

Relevance to the Field: Bilingual children or children from culturally or linguistically diverse (CLD) homes, in particular early sequential bilingual children, often demonstrate differences in lexical inventories across languages. For example, a child who speaks Spanish in the home but English in school may exhibit a strong inventory of home-based vocabulary, whereas English vocabulary may reflect more academic terms learned in the classroom. Most often, especially during early development, these inventories do not overlap; thus, the overall lexical inventory is a combination of both languages rather than one core set of terms translated into both. In order to accurately assess receptive vocabulary skills, bilingual children must be assessed in both spoken languages. As demonstrated in this study, assessment in English is an incomplete and thus invalid measure of receptive vocabulary skills; scores will indicate lower receptive vocabulary skills as assessment will not take into account alternate language inventories. This may result in false identification of language deficits and consequent wrongful referral for support services. Further, scores should be interpreted with caution, as a variety of factors may contribute to poor performance on standardized assessment. In order to ensure accurate identification of deficit and assessment of lexical inventory, standardized assessment should be used as an informational tool; other assessment measures such as parent interview or dynamic assessment may provide more insight into true language skills.

Umbel, V. M., Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, M. C., & Oller, D.K. (1992). Measuring bilingual children’s receptive vocabularies. Child Development4, 1012-1020.