Bilingual brains, monolingual brains, apples and oranges

Dr. Brenda K. Gorman, Contributing Author

I took my boys to Baskin-Robbins the other day, where they still have the flavor that has been my favorite ever since I was a child. The ice cream was awesome, of course, as was the conversation with my 8-year-old and 4-year-old sons.

Older: How many scoops are in a double?

Younger: Two.

Older: How many are in a triple?

Younger: Three.

Me: How about in a quadruple?

Younger: Cuatro.

Now you may wonder why he said “cuatro” in Spanish. Does he often mix English and Spanish? No, not often at all. Actually, his receptive language skills in Spanish are good, but he rarely speaks in Spanish spontaneously, without prompting. I thought he would have been primed to say “four,” given the preceding “two” and “three” cues. Interestingly, though, the prefix “quad” primed him to produce the similarly sounding word choice, “cuatro.” It is fascinating to consider how language is represented in the brain and how the neural circuitry in bilinguals differs that of monolinguals.

This is all an important reminder that we cannot compare apples to oranges during our assessments. Even if a child produces mostly English, this does not mean that we can ignore his dual-language experience and easily use monolingual norms to compare his skills to that of an English monolingual. In fact, it is possible for a client to perform better on expressive tasks in one language and better on receptive tasks in another language. One cannot judge proficiency based on expressive skills alone. The bottom line is that we need to collect thorough language histories and document these histories in our reports. And we need to remember that the bilingual brain is amazing and unique.


About Brenda K. Gorman

Dr. Gorman is an Associate Professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. She completed her Master’s and Doctorate with a multicultural/bilingual specialization in Communication Sciences and Disorders at The University of Texas at Austin. Brenda worked for many years as a bilingual (Spanish-English) speech-language pathologist serving diverse caseloads for public school districts, early intervention agencies, and a company which she co-founded in 2001. She has an extensive background in working with ELLs and providing professional development to teachers who work with ELLs, and she serves as a clinical advisor to Lingua Health and Grupo Lingua. Brenda has conducted research, published, and presented on topics related to speech and language assessment and intervention in bilingual populations and language and literacy development and disorders. She has taught courses in numerous topic areas ranging from assessment and intervention in bilingual populations, child language and literacy disorders, speech sound disorders, fluency, to adult language disorders and AAC. She co-directed the Reading Acquisition for Spanish Speakers Program (RASPA) and an Early Reading First (ERF) project funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education while at Marquette University, where she earned tenure in 2013. Brenda is now at Elmhurst College, where she is investigating language and literacy assessment and intervention in bilinguals and co-developing a dual-language (Spanish-English) language and literacy curriculum for preschoolers.

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