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.