This month I have evaluated several students to determine whether they have a “language disability.”

A language disability describes difficulty using or understanding language. For example, a child who has a hard time using complete sentences, or who doesn’t understand what to do when an adult gives them a direction to follow, might have a language disability. It’s like a learning disability, but specifically talking about language understanding and use.

The interesting thing about the students I evaluated this month is that all of them speak Spanish at home, so English is their second (or third?) language. This makes the evaluation tricky, because learning English as a second language is a normal process and NOT a disability! However, it can mimic what a language disability looks like. Difficulty following directions? check. Can’t use complete sentences? check.

How can we tell the difference between a student who can’t speak well in English because they are still learning it, and a student with a language disability?

The simple answer: the difficulty will exist in both languages.

If a student has normal language development in their first language (Spanish, in this case), then we expect that they will learn to speak English following a normal learning process. If a student has difficulty learning their first language, then they will probably have difficulty learning a new language also. This is easier said than measured, though. Every student learns at a different rate, and when a student is in the middle of learning English they sometimes start regressing in their first language and can look like they don’t have strong skills in either.

How do I test for that?

I use interpreters in the child’s primary language to help me. A good interpreter is invaluable! They talk with the student in their home language, and can tell me whether the student is using normal grammar, expected vocabulary, conjugating verbs, leaving out words, etc. They also help me give language tests that have been designed to use on bilingual children, so we can measure the student’s language abilities more objectively. I usually have the student look at a wordless picture book and make up a story to go with it, to get a sense of their storytelling and how comfortable they are speaking.

I also ask their parents about language at home. What language do they speak with their parents? with siblings and friends? Did they start talking about the same time as other children? How quickly do they learn new words? The ELL teacher can also give me lots of great information. Is the student progressing as quickly as other students learning English, or are they slower?

My four students this month all came out as being kids with normal language skills who are learning English. Good thing I checked!