7.5 Language Differences in Children

Developmental language progression tables show typical patterns of language acquisition. However, many children’s language abilities develop according to different timelines. Common areas of language differences might include children who are multilingual learners, children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and children who have autism. Some children may exhibit language delays or speech delays and show marked differences in how and when they communicate. Understanding the typical developmental patterns allows educators to recognize when additional intervention service providers may need to be engaged. While early childhood teachers should not be expected to diagnose language delays, familiarity with language development does help teachers to determine when to suggest a referral for an evaluation and how to contextualize children’s language attempts and proficiency.

7.5a Children who are Multilingual Learners

Children who begin learning more than one language prior to the age of five are defined as dual language learners (McManis, 2012). This text uses the term multilingual learners because it is more inclusive and recognizes that some children may speak more than two languages across their home, school, and community environments. Some children are exposed to more than one language from birth, and others are introduced to a new language upon entry to an early learning setting (Castro, Garcia, & Marcos, 2013; Genessee, 2010). English Language Learner is another term used to describe a child who is immersed in English at formal school entry or later and whose home language is not English (Halle et al, 2012). In other words, when the exposure to a different language occurs during the preschool years and younger, we would define them as multilingual learners. Once they enter the K-12 education system, they may be identified as English Language Learners. Recognizing that some children will come to classroom contexts with more than one language is important because when children are learning more than one language, their trajectory of development differs from that of monolingual children.

Receptive Language in Multilingual Children

Young children have a pre-wired or innate capability of learning more than one language from birth, and young children may become proficient in more than one language if multiple language exposure occurs in quantity, and with quality (Espinosa, 2013). Infants who are bilingual develop two separate but connected linguistic systems (Conboy, 2006). Because bilingual children must develop neural pathways and connections that are different from monolingual children, their cognitive development will also look different from that of monolingual children. Research demonstrates that acquiring multiple languages influences cognitive and linguistic learning mechanisms (Espinosa, 2013) and results in advantages that are evident in cognitive development (Bialystok, 2009).

Productive/Expressive Language Learning in Multilingual Children

As children enter new language environments or negotiate multiple languages, educators may notice differences in expressive language. Listening and comprehension tend to develop first. Educators may notice a child appears reticent to engage verbally in a new language environment preferring to silently observe and listen to their peers and educators talking around them. Frequently referred to as the silent period, it is an important learning space for children as they are internalizing the common phonological and grammatical patterns of the new language. During this time, a child’s expressive language may seem to be lagging behind, particularly at school, and even at home. But, it is important to remember children are using this time to develop their vocabulary across languages. The younger a child is, the longer the silent period might last, thus it is commonly observed in early learning settings (American Speech, Language and Hearing Association n.d.).

While multilingual children may present differently than monolingual children in terms of literacy development, it is important to consider their whole language context; failure to do so might result in an early childhood educator interpreting perceived differences as a language delay (Espinosa, 2013). For example, multilingual children may appear to have smaller vocabularies if only one language is assessed. However, when educators evaluate a child’s combined vocabulary knowledge across language contexts, the true depth of their language knowledge is recognized. Similarly, multilingual children may take a little longer to articulate their ideas when speaking because the child is working to determine which language to use in the current situation. The process multilingual children use to move from language to language is called code switching and it is an additional processing task for children (Castro, 2013). The additional cognitive challenge of moving between two languages is positively associated with executive function and cognitive flexibility (Espinosa, 2013). Therefore, it is important for educators to allow children who speak multiple languages more time to communicate their ideas and provide additional wait time when completing word retrieval vocabulary assessments (Espinosa, 2013).

In addition to code switching, some children might also blend the languages in a process called code mixing (Peterson, 1988). A child may start out speaking one language and switch to the other or insert vocabulary from one language into a sentence that begins with the other language. For example, a child may say, “Quiero cookie” to indicate the desire for a cookie instead of completing the entire phrase in English, or the entire phrase in Spanish. Parents, teachers, or other adults may perceive code mixing as evidence of a delay or a problem (McManis, 2012). However, children who are code mixing sometimes do so within a context where they might be expected to be understood. A child who says, “more leche” can reasonably anticipate that adults will discern the desire for milk. Even when vocabulary words are inserted, children retain the larger set of language rules for each of their languages internally (McManis, 2012). Thus, code mixing should be an indicator that children are still building vocabulary and progressing with their language development while creating their internal maps for each language.

Young children are in an ideal window, or sensitive period, for mastering the functions and structures of language (Conboy & Kuhl, 2011). While there may be differences in how quickly children who speak multiple languages communicate, there are no apparent differences between multilingual and monolingual children’s phonological awareness or decoding skills (Espinosa, 2013). The same is true for the developmental window of first word occurrences. The early language skill development of multilingual children, including semantics, syntax, phonological awareness, and morphology, provide a child with the ability to think about their language understanding. Moreover, the ability to both comprehend and think about language will be applied to both languages (Lopez & Greenfield, 2004).

The long-term gains for multiple languages are compelling—they are evident in cognition and culture and may have economic implications for the child later on (Bialystok, 2009). Some teachers may worry that if a child is not speaking English now, they will have difficulty with English later on. In fact, children do eventually learn English. Learning more than one language does not ultimately hamper the ability to learn English or to perform well on academic tasks when home and school languages are supported (Barnett et al, 2007). Children who are English Language learners keep pace or surpass native English speakers if they are proficient in English by Kindergarten (Halle et al, 2012). Therefore, allowing children to communicate across languages is a valuable practice for educators to encourage.

Pause and Reflect: Pumpkin, Pumpkin 

Ms. Katrina held 22-month-old Sebastian on her lap, reading to him during the quiet morning in her two-year-old classroom. She pointed to the pictures in the board book and said, “pumpkin.” Sebastian looked back at her with shining eyes and pointed to the picture and smiled. He did not reply. Repeatedly through the book, Katrina pointed out pumpkins and prompted Sebastian to say, “Pumpkin.” Not only was Sebastian unwilling to repeat the word, “pumpkin,” while book-reading, but Ms. Katrina noticed that Sebastian had very little to say at school. Ms. Katrina asked the family if Sebastian talked at home, and mom immediately expressed her worry. Mom said that at home he pointed to items and would say, “Mama” or “Daddy,” but he was generally very quiet. Mom indicated that she was worried Sebastian would “not learn English.” The parents and Katrina worked together to refer Sebastian for an evaluation for early intervention services to determine if there was a language delay. Later that same week, the classroom went to a pumpkin farm for a field trip. Sebastian walked over to a very large pumpkin in the front and loudly said, “Cabasasa,” an approximation of the Spanish word for pumpkin, “calabaza.” He then started to giggle and put his hands on many of the large and small pumpkins right around him, each time calling out “Cabasasa!”

What assessments could the teacher make about Sebastian’s language development? What questions could the teacher ask the family that would have provided more helpful information? What assumptions should the teacher avoid? What should the teacher’s orientation be to this student’s needs?

7.5b Children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Oral language and listening are dependent on the auditory system, and when there is hearing loss, language development is altered. Hearing loss varies from complete deafness to partial hearing. When hearing loss ranges from severe to profound, there are substantial barriers to oral language development (de Oliveira Sobreira, 2015). This is particularly true in children who lose hearing soon after birth or are deaf from birth (de Oliveira Sobreira, 2015). Deafness and hearing impairments do not prevent a child from communicating. Early diagnosis and intervention is important, so that children may experience a full range of possibilities for developing language, external to speech and hearing.

Receptive Language in Children Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Acquisition of language for children who use sign language has structural similarities to the development of oral language in hearing children (Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972). In fact, children who learn sign language demonstrate an onset of first sign earlier than hearing children demonstrate spoken words (Schlesinger, 1978). Bonvillian and colleagues (1983) found that deaf children in their study showed earlier attainment of additional milestones. Early first sign production often occurs with the first word at approximately 8.5 months with a range of 5.5 months to 12 months. Children acquire sign language vocabulary quickly, demonstrating an average size of 10 signs at the age of 1 year, and 50 words at 18 months (Bonvillian et al., 1983). The average for putting two signs together is 17 months with a range of 12.5 to 22 months. This is consistent with what we know about young children’s capacity to use sign language. Schlesinger and Meadow (1972) suggest that all children would learn to sign before learning to speak, if exposed to sign language.

The desire and effort to communicate is universal; parents, family members, and other adults wish to engage in social language transactions with children (Marschark & Waters, 2008). Parent interaction has some features that are the same with all children. Deaf parents demonstrate a version of child-directed speech, emphasizing their signed communication with infants using large movements, incorporating repetition, and holding signs longer than usual (Koester & Lahti-Harper, 2010). This is similar to how hearing parents use exaggerated vocal input, changing pitch, and melodic contours when they engage in child-directed speech (Koester & Lahti-Harper, 2010). Deaf infants show greater attention and responsiveness to infant-directed signs (Masataka, 1996). Whether parents are communicating vocally or through sign language with their babies, they are doing so in a way that is more dramatic and exclamatory, accompanied by exaggerated facial gestures. For all children, gestures are among the first experiences of receptive and expressive language, and these are precursors to developing more complex language through speech or sign language (Volterra et al., 2005).

Productive/Expressive Language in Children Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Infants and toddlers who are deaf or hard of hearing engage in symbolic play as part of their expressive language experiences and in doing so, practice using gestures and sometimes oral sounds or words. The development of gestures and the numbers of words and phrases understood or produced is related to specific attainments in symbolic play (Yoshinaga-Itako et al., 1998). Children who demonstrate higher expressive language levels make more attempts at utterances, words, and word combinations. All manifestations of expressive language, including spoken language and signed output, are strong predictors of speech outcome, suggesting ample opportunities for practice supports the development of speech skills (Yoshinaga-Itako et al., 2020). Therefore, opportunities to engage in social play strengthen productive language with children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

 

Some children use sign language to communicate.
Some children use sign language to communicate.

Speech ability is impacted by the severity of hearing loss (de Oliveria Sobreira et al., 2015). Some children are hard of hearing with mild to severe hearing loss, and some children are deaf with profound hearing loss, or have both hearing and visual loss. All of these possibilities impact the trajectory of how the child learns to communicate and how educators and families structure learning opportunities for children. Children who have early cochlear implants may have improved auditory-linguistic abilities (de Oliveira Sobreira et al., 2015). However, cochlear implants are not always sufficient to solve hearing loss, and results are variable (Peterson et al., 2010). The speech ability of children with mild to severe hearing loss becomes more similar as children reach adolescence, but the speech ability of children with profound hearing loss is less well developed. A child’s success may also be impacted by the frequency of signs along with speech, coupled with one’s level of hearing (Marschark & Knoors, 2012, Yishinaga-Itano, 1998). Approaches for communication may include sign language, tactile sign language, cued speech, hearing aids, and cochlear implants. Decisions about which strategies to use are determined by the child’s needs, the family preferences, and the availability of services or early learning settings.

Pause and Reflect: Rainsticks and Picture Cards

It is six weeks into the school year, and Ms. Noora has noticed that 3-year-old Deon tends to be the last child to leave centers and to join the group for activities. Deon does not usually sing along in circle time, though he does the hand motions and joins in some words in the chorus. Deon does respond to language, but it is inconsistent. Sometimes he seems to be in his own world instead of responding, until after the other children have already done so. Ms. Noora had thought that this might be a temperamental or developmental trait of Deon’s. However, this morning, Deon’s parents told Ms. Noora that they are worried about his hearing and are having him evaluated. Ms. Noora thinks about her routines this year. For transitions, she has mainly been using short special songs to indicate what is coming next and sometimes a rain stick. If Deon is hard of hearing, this might not have been as useful as a picture card or puppet. Ms. Noora immediately starts to pay attention to Deon’s patterns and observes that he looks at other children when there is a transition. Later, Ms. Noora decides to take the children outside to play during a break in the rain. As Ms. Noora begins singing the recess song, she holds up the picture card from the daily schedule and waves it. She notices that Deon looks at the card and immediately goes to grab his coat.

Accessibility in our classrooms means that we use strategies to include all children. What are some transition routines that can capture children who have language differences?

7.5c Children with Autism

The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has steadily increased over the last few decades. One in every 54 children is identified with autism spectrum disorders (Maenner et al., 2020). Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions, usually evident before age 3, causing challenges in a child’s speaking or nonverbal communication (IDEA, 2004; 34 C.F.R. § 300.8 [c] [1]). ASD is also characterized by difficulty with social skills and changes in routines and unusual responses to sensory experiences. Autism is considered to be the fastest-growing childhood disorder (Gonzalez et al., 2017). The median age at which a child is first evaluated ranges from 29 months to 46 months (Maenner et al., 2020) and often results from questions about the child’s language development. Language deficits are often an early impetus for parents to seek answers and begin the process of evaluation. Children with autism display a wide range of language performances. Some children may be considered non-verbal or use limited verbal speech. While other children with autism may follow typical language patterns. Additionally, some children have speech, but might have trouble with specific forms of language, such as pragmatic cues. Language development in children with autism, like all children, is not fixed. A child who has no speech may later develop speech (Boutot, 2016). All children can grow and develop in their ability to communicate with supportive instruction and early intervention.

Receptive Language in Children who have Autism

Receptive language may be affected in young children with ASD. For example, toddlers with autism may have difficulty hearing words when the referent (person or object) is absent (Fitch et al., 2018). In other words, referring to a dog if the dog is not actually there, might be a receptive language task that could be harder for a very young child who has autism. Learning semantics, the proper usage of language in varying social settings, is a difficult task for all young children. It requires a utilization of receptive language that is interpretive. For example, a child in an examination setting was given a set of dolls and told by the adult, “We are going to play with my family.” The child was perplexed at how the adult’s family could be a set of dolls (Boutot & Myles, 2017). Very young children with ASD may have trouble incorporating new information on the basis of verbal cues alone, without visual support (Fitch, 2018). However, with opportunity for repetition of verbal input and a low-demand task, young toddlers with ASD can be successful in acquiring newer mental representations (Fitch, 2018). It is valuable to remember semantics can be taught and learned through intentional opportunities and experiences.

Children with autism may also have difficulty interpreting components of nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and proximity (Boutot & Myles, 2017), and might need coaching or instruction so that they acquire knowledge of social reactions. Children with autism might also find it more challenging to process language when immersed in settings with distracting visual and auditory stimuli (Marco et al., 2011). It is helpful to consider the environment, especially if you are trying to help the child with an area of language. Generally speaking, the social-communication impairments associated with ASD are particularly impactful for the development of receptive language (Reinhartsen et al., 2018). Teachers need to pursue multiple approaches in order to make sure that a child with ASD is understanding what is being communicated.

Productive/Expressive Language in Children who have Autism

Many diagnostic tools focus on screening for expressive language. For example, eye contact and pointing are important indicators of productive language or potential. Other markers include orienting to name, imitation, social smiling, and social interest (Zwaigenbaum et al., 2005). While orienting to name is a receptive skill, imitation, smiling, interest, and name orientation are productive expressions of language. Children who are diagnosed with ASD by 24 months tend to display fewer phrases and gestures by 12 months, and diagnosis of autism often occurs between 12 and 24 months (Barbaro & Dissanayake, 2012). Parents and other adults expect to see children become more communicative and start using speech between the first and second year. Some examples of expected productive language include shaking and nodding the head in response to a question or pointing to communicate that they want something. Children may also hold up their arms to be picked up, which is an expressive language gesture. In addition, we expect to see transactional language such as giving items to another person and showing or demonstrating something they find interesting (Mitchell et al., 2006).

Children with autism sometimes exhibit productive language called echolalia where a child repeats or echoes what they have heard. You might ask a child if they would like to go outside and instead of replying with a yes or no, the child may repeat “outside, outside.” Echolalia is sometimes present with typically developing toddlers and becomes more visible in children with autism as they age. Additionally, pragmatics is an area that is of particular interest when working with children with autism. When a child has other functional language areas mastered, such as word meaning and order and pronunciation, they may still struggle with understanding the rules and social components associated with language (Boutot & Myles, 2017). Pragmatics dictates that it might be appropriate after naptime at a family home child care to say, “okay, up.” But at home, a child has the freedom to say, “I want to sleep!” Children with autism may struggle with these contextual distinctions, which vary based on the demands and structure of the social environment (Boutot & Myles, 2017). In early childhood, all children seem to struggle with pragmatics to varying degrees, thus difficulty with pragmatics would be more pronounced as the child with autism ages.

Pause and Reflect: Circle Time

Ms. Tina called the students over to circle time in her young fives classroom. At circle time, the children start with a hello song where every child says their name. This leads into the next song for the week, which includes clapping and movements to practice rhyming words. During the circle time experience, Andrew walks around the room. He is verbal, but he does not say his name when it is his turn, and he does not join in any part of circle time. Ms. Tina knows from interacting with him at other points of the day that Andrew does not like it when the room gets “loud.”

The next group prompt gives every child the opportunity to think of a word that ends in the same way that the book emphasized. Should Ms. Tina call Andrew over to offer him a turn? Are there strategies she could use so that it would not seem so loud for Andrew that would still allow him to participate?

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The Early Literacy Journey: Supporting and Celebrating Young Learners Copyright © 2024 by Sandra Carrie Garvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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