What is the relationship between bilingualism and learning disabilities?

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The practice of placing bilingual students (those whose second language is English) into special education classes has a controversial history. Originally, it was considered a simple act of discrimination; however, as time passed, it became clear that unintentional bias, based on cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, led to placing many bilingual students into special education programs.
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The issues of bilingualism and disability intersect in the limitations inherent in testing culturally and linguistically diverse children, many of whom are English language learners, so as to prevent their linguistic problems from being incorrectly interpreted as learning disabilities, and in the recent movement toward sign bilingualism, which will enable hearing-impaired children to become more fully integrated into both the deaf and hearing worlds.

English Language Learners

Educators have become increasingly aware of the difficulties faced by culturally and linguistically diverse children, many of whom are either recent immigrants or are raised by first-generation American parents who speak little or no English. Bilingualism has also been found to cause speech delays in some children and stuttering in others. Because many are either bilingual or still learning English when they enter a school system, their scores on placement testing can also be misinterpreted, either unintentionally or as a product of testing bias, thus resulting in their being inappropriately placed in special education classes. Early problems of this nature were often a result of discriminatory practices in testing, so in the 1950s, Robert Eels developed tests that he felt lacked cultural bias and were thus free of the traditional weaknesses associated with intelligence tests, but psychometricians questioned his efforts.

By the 1960s, federal courts had become involved in the testing of minority children for special education placement, and an attempt was made to determine whether cultural and linguistic differences did indeed make tests biased. In the 1970s, Jane Mercer developed the System of Multicultural Pluralistic Assessment (SOMPA), which had as its basis the idea that diverse tests from various assessment models could negate the effect that different cultural experiences in a test taker’s background had on scoring, but it was unsuccessful in garnering support. Like Eels’s testing, SOMPA did not address linguistic differences nor did it provide for any controls for bilingualism.

The literature chronicles the main reasons that English language learners are sometimes mistakenly thought to be students with learning disabilities and therefore placed into special education. The most obvious culprit is inadequately trained school personnel. If testers and assessment handlers are not trained to use multiple variables, their assessment instruments are limited and therefore flawed. Researchers in the field also cite problems in the referral process, wherein educators discount or are unaware of the impact on learning of cultural and linguistic variables. Inconsistencies in the interpretation of assessment results are also problematic, because many of the behaviors associated with the problems of English language learners are similar to those used as markers for learning disabilities. To complicate matters, assessing whether an English language learner has a true learning disability could lead to a student’s being kept out of special education when the child actually should be placed in the program. In short, assessment of English language learners may not be accurate because the primary problem is the number of variables at play (for example, environment issues, such as poor instruction and poverty, which can adversely affect student learning).

The best method of differentiating between language differences and learning disabilities involves gathering and integrating data from multiple sources (such as the student, parents, caretakers, service providers, and therapists) and multiple contexts (informal settings and formal settings), while using multiple methods (formal, informal, and alternative assessment procedures). One of the key reforms initiated by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and continued through the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is nondiscriminatory assessment. Federal specifications require that tests be selected and administered so as not to be racially, culturally, or sexually discriminatory. However, one 2006 study by Richard A. Figueroa and Patricia Newsome found that school psychologists typically continue to include an intelligence test, a standardized achievement test, and a test of perceptual or memory processing, and that bias among school psychologists continues to result in some English language learners being mistaken for children with learning disabilities.

Sign Bilingualism

As far as bilingualism and the hearing impaired are concerned, the central issue is that sign languages used in different countries (such as American Sign Language, Auslan, and British Sign Language), despite their similarities, have distinct features. The concept of sign bilingualism, or "bimodal bilingualism," a term that began to be used in the 1990s, involves overcoming deafness as a learning disability by incorporating both the sign language of the hearing-impaired community and the spoken and written languages of the hearing community. As researcher Miranda Pickersgill argued, this enables deaf students to become “bilingual,” or to be able to participate fully in both the deaf and hearing communities. Actual bilingual hearing-impaired children typically are first taught the language of the ethnic community (which would naturally be their first language) and then later are taught English (as a second language), perhaps beginning at school. The problem is that these students then become deaf English language learners, and their problems in learning English could be misinterpreted as cognitive learning disabilities. Some services and schools that use a total communication philosophy most likely adopt sign bilingualism as a teaching approach for educating deaf students. A sign bilingual approach may also involve the systematic use of both British Sign Language and American Sign Language. Overall, the desired outcome of sign bilingualism is a lifelong learning outcome—that all children attain levels of competence and proficiency that will be sufficient for them in both their student and adult lives.


Bursztyn, Alberto M. Praeger Handbook of Special Education. Westport: Greenwood, 2007. Print.

Figueroa, Richard A., and Patricia Newsome. “The Diagnosis of Learning Disabilities in English Learners: Is It Nondiscriminatory?” Journal of Learning Disabilities 39.3 (2006): 206–14. Print.

Grosjean, Francois. "Sign Language and Bilingualism." Psychology Today. Sussex, 27 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

Kohnert, Kathryn. Language Disorders in Bilingual Children and Adults. 2nd ed. San Diego: Plural, 2013. Print.

Langdon, Henriette W. Assessment and Intervention for Communication Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations. Clifton Park: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2008. Print.

Pickersgill, Miranda. “Bilingualism: Current Policy and Practice.” Issues in Deaf Education. Ed. Susan Gregory, et al. London: Fulton, 1998. Print.

Shenker, Rosalee. "Stuttering and the Bilingual Child." Stuttering Foundation. Stuttering Foundation of America, 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

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