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Language Development in Non-Mainstream Cultures

Language Development in Non-Mainstream Cultures
Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP
March 17, 2021

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Editor’s Note: This text is a transcript of the webinar, Language Development in Non-Mainstream Cultures, presented by Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  1. Discuss the concept of cultural practices and how they influence language development. 
  2. List multiple ways in which language development in non-mainstream cultures can differ from mainstream culture in the United States. 
  3. Explain varying ways in which differences in language practices and development impact assessment and intervention. 

What is Development

Before we can talk about language development and language development in non-mainstream cultures, we have to have an idea and understanding of what development is.  What comes to mind when you hear development? For me, what comes to mind is growth in skills and ability from birth to adult, that larger idea of development. We may think of universal patterns of development, what all humans would experience in development. We might think of developmental linear trajectories of development. Finally, we may think of development in different ways such as physical development, cognitive development, or even social and emotional development.

How is development determined? We depend a lot on research to inform our ideas of development. Developmental milestones help guide us in making decisions on what is considered developmentally age-appropriate and we use assessment tools. But let's think about what else we might need to consider.

Research on Child Development

What does the research on child development actually tell us? We have to consider that our ideas of development might hold cultural bias. In a research call-to-action and in a developmental psychology journal, Nielsen and colleagues put forth these points:

  • The influence of culture is not given sufficient attention in literature on development
  • Assumptions and interpretations of research often made without the consideration of potential cultural influences
  • The cultural variation in human development and human cognition not frequently discussed
  • No universal developmental context in which humans grow up
  • The vast majority of the world’s population is underrepresented in high impact development research
  • Depend mostly on culturally specific findings to define development
    • WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic)

The culture that's usually represented in the research that informs our child development measures, milestones, et cetera are from western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries or populations (2017).

What is Language Development?

We can go through the same process when we talk about language development. What comes to mind when you think of the concept of language development? I often think about the rules and patterns of communication that we would expect a child to display. What are the developmental milestones of both speech and language that a child goes through? What are the stages of linguistic development from birth to adult?

Consider how is language development determined? Once again, we depend on research to inform our ideas of language development. Individually, we look at milestones that children are reaching and we perform assessments on children to determine whether or not their language is developing appropriately.

But what else do we know?  Over one-third of the individuals served by speech-language pathologists come from cultures other than our own. Our client base is becoming much more diverse. Members of a cultural group have difficulty noticing that their own language practices are cultural because they see their own ways as “normal”.  The majority of our field is predominantly white women, so we come from a specific cultural group too.

We absolutely need to have a better understanding of the beliefs and practices of different cultural groups and how these differences influence the communicative behaviors and styles of interaction in different cultural communities. Something that we have to consider is that language development, just like all development, is guided by local goals of a cultural community that prioritize learning to function within their own cultural institutions and technologies.

Growing Awareness in Teaching Language Development

There is a growing awareness in our field. We are looking at other areas and thinking about culture much more and there's a growing awareness of how we're teaching language development.

I teach a course on speech and language development and use the Owens textbook. In this textbook, the author states, “The interactional patterns just described reflect the infant-caregiver behaviors found in middle-SES American culture (Owen, 2020).” That particular chapter is about infant-directed speech and parental communication behaviors. However, at the end of the chapter, he does acknowledge that the whole chapter described what we know about interactional patterns in middle-SES American culture. He then goes on to give some more information about other cultures.

Growing Awareness in Research

We are growing our awareness in how we teach language development and we're growing awareness in our research. This quote was recently in a call-to-action paper on needing more research that has more representative samples in our research populations in the areas that we serve in speech-language pathology. The quote  states, “The majority of our intervention practices employed by speech-language pathologists are grounded in the cultural beliefs and practices of the white, middle-class population because most of the research has focused on this population (Hammer, 2011).”  Most of the research that we have focuses on the language practices of middle-SES American cultural families. There's a growing awareness in teaching language development and growing awareness in research so we must also ensure that there's a growing awareness in our clinical work as well.

Cultural Competence

ASHA says, “Professional competence requires that audiologists and speech-language pathologists practice in a manner that considers the impact of cultural variables, as well as language exposure and acquisition of their clients, patients and their family. It's important that we're integrating clients, patients, families, traditions, customs, values and beliefs in service delivery.” How do we do this?

What is Culture?

We start by understanding what culture is. Culture is not just having traditions and customs, speaking a different language, or eating different food. Culture is not defined by one's race or ethnicity and culture isn't just what other people do.

Who Has Culture?

White, middle-class practices are actually cultural. We all have culture.  Almost everything we do on a day-to-day basis is guided by culture:  Our daily hygiene routines, our leisure activities, the way we care for our health and wellbeing, the way we discipline and guide our children, the way we communicate and interact within our communities, our families and our children. Until we understand that what we do is cultural, we have a hard time understanding what culture truly is. Further, cultural groups often assume that there is one best way, their way. We often look at our own cultural practices in an ethnocentric way assuming that they're normal or natural and this is the best way.

As I just said, there are normative expectations that develop and are seen as “normal” or the “natural way” of doing things, and these expectations of a society are often based on the cultural practices of the dominant or mainstream members. Our culture is often impacted by various influences in our lives. We rarely embody just one culture but we are part of many different cultural communities. For example, I am a white, middle-class woman. My cultural practices are informed by my greater society at large living in the United States but I am also living in a middle-class suburban family network. I have my religious culture and my professional culture. I have a lot of different factors that inform how I do things and the practices that I engage in.

Culture is largely defined by what a community deems as value-driven. What is important to our community? What practices hold up those values? I have listed a few factors that we might consider when we think about what influences culture:

  • Values
  • Practices
  • Community
  • Family
  • Religion
  • School
  • Professional
  • Language
  • Literacy

Values are really important within a culture. Practices are things that we do on an ongoing basis. We're influenced by our community, our family, religion, school or profession. Thinking about things like language and literacy as also cultural processes.

Cultural Practices

Humans develop through their changing participation in the socio-cultural activities of their communities, which also change. When we think about cultural practices, we think about some general components:

  • Culture isn’t just what other people do.
  • Cultural practices fit together and are connected.
  • Cultural communities continue to change, as do individuals.
  • There is not likely to be One Best Way.

(Rogoff, 2003)

Culture isn’t just what other people do. Cultural practices fit together and are connected. Earlier, I talked about values. Usually, within a cultural community, there are some overriding values that are present such as individuality or collectivism or gender roles or status. There are a lot of different values that might be present and those values connect to the different cultural practices that are incorporated within that particular community. Cultural communities continue to change, as do individuals. Culture is not just comprised of a static set of traits but is continually changing within cultural communities which also change, and individuals change as well.

One last important point to consider, which I stated earlier, is there is not likely to be one best way of cultural practice for how to do something or how to talk or child rear,  etc.  We have to consider that there are more ways than our way.

In 1995, Miller and Goodnow provided a really good definition of what cultural practices are. This definition includes:

  1. What people do
  2. Action that is situated in a context and open to interpretation
  3. Actions that have a routine or repeated quality to them
  4. “Social” or “cultural”
  5. Engaged in by many or most members of a cultural group
  6. Actions that carry normative expectations about how things should be done
  7. Come packaged with values about what is natural, mature, morally right, or aesthetically pleasing
  8. Become part of a group’s identity
  9. Have meaning or significance that goes beyond the immediate goals of the action

Cultural practice can be defined as what people do. It’s this engagement of being and doing within your cultural community. Cultural practice is action that is situated in a context and open to interpretation.  Let's look at an example to give this some context. Let’s consider infants sleeping in their own beds, in their own rooms. This is an action. The action is sleeping situated in a context of their own bedrooms, in their own bed. This action is open to interpretation. We can interpret this action by values or by judgments. For example, we can ask why are the infants sleeping in their own beds in this culture?

Cultural practices are actions that have a routine or repeated quality to them. They're something that's engaged in over and over again within that cultural community. For example, mealtime practices, child-rearing practices, things that we do over and over again within our own families and communities.

These cultural practices come packaged with values about what is natural, mature, morally right, or aesthetically pleasing. Let’s look at these specifically. What is natural? For example, is it natural to keep breastfeeding after a period of time?  Is it natural for a child to be formula-fed?   What’s mature? In our cultural practices, what is morally right? Again, discipline is a common thing that's talked about. What's aesthetically pleasing? Think about body image, cultural practices and activities that we engage in and how we define what's aesthetically pleasing within our own culture.

Cultural practices become a part of a group's identity; you identify with these cultural practices. Culture is something you're proud of, you identify with it, you do it because you value it, because you're proud of it, because it's a part of your culture, and it's a part of your identity.

Cultural practices have meaning or significance that goes beyond the immediate goals of the action.  The goals are value-driven and are part of a bigger picture. I'll use the sleeping example again. A child is sleeping in bed by himself/herself simply means that a child is sleeping. The immediate goal of the action is “I want my child asleep.” But the bigger significance might be that I'm teaching my child to self-soothe, to be more independent.  There is significance that goes beyond the immediate action.

To summarize, cultural practices meet a community's immediate needs.  Communities and cultures have their own goals and they're relevant to survival in that particular community. Rogoff states, “In each community, human development is guided by local goals which prioritize learning to function within that community's cultural institutions and technologies (2003).”

There is no one universal way of human development. Play, language, literacy, even motor development which we think of as biological, can be influenced by cultural practices (Rogoff, 2003; Nielsen, Haun, Kartner, & Legare, 2017).

I use the following example often because it helps us understand that culture plays a role in a lot of the development that we might take for granted as being strictly biological in nature. The example is children learning to crawl.  Remember, developmental stages can change depending on the cultural practices of that cultural community. For example, children who are carried a lot are going to learn to crawl later. Even in our own culture, the crawling milestones have become a little bit later since the “Back to Sleep” campaign. In our culture, we value the safety of our children and we're finding that children lying on their stomachs causes some infant death. So, we've changed our cultural practices of children sleeping on their backs. Infants aren't pushing up as much because they're not laid on their stomach like they used to be and as a result, crawling happens a little bit later.

This is a cultural practice and it's culturally influenced. There's obviously biology involved as well but this example illustrates that culture really plays a role in a lot of the way our behaviors develop.

Cultural Practices are Value Driven

In our larger community context, US culture is largely driven by dominant cultural values and often the non-dominant, non-mainstream cultural practices get scrutinized. Think about times you have been at a  store and see how a child is behaving or how a parent is disciplining their child. How might you have judged how they should be behaving. Cultural practices are value-driven and traditionally dominant practices in society take precedence.

Our values and practices may change as culture changes. Cultural changes occur based on community and individual needs, as well as participation in different or changing communities.

We participate in different cultural communities and these cultural practices continually change. In my house, for example, our cultural practice of using technology has increased a lot and changed how we value it. Prior to COVID-19, we would try to keep our children off of screens. But because of the demands of COVID-19 and our children being home or trying to work from home more, we have embraced the idea of technology as a tool to better our schooling and some of those other practices.

That’s just an example of how our practices continually change depending on what's happening within our cultural community and our societies. Again, there is no static set of cultural traits for each cultural community that we might define. Therefore, we have to be open to the idea of discovering what those values, communicative practices, and language practices are within the families and the individuals that we serve.

Cultural Practices/Deficit Views

One thing we have to take into consideration is cultural practices and having deficit views. I talked about ethnocentrism which is judging that another cultural community's ways are immoral, unwise, or inappropriate based on one's own cultural background without taking into account the meaning and circumstances of events within that community. It doesn't take into account why they would do that and what might be the value that underlies that practice.

For many years, researchers have compared US people of color with European American people using a deficit model in which European American skills and upbringing have been designed to compensate for children's cultural deprivation. Our Headstart program is an example of this idea of seeing children and their families' linguistic abilities as a deficit and that we have to teach them white middle-class practices as a way of remediating their cultural deprivation.

What is considered “normal” is typically the white middle-class, linguistic and sociolinguistic practices which subsequently and often unintentionally position non-mainstream language varieties and language socialization processes that incorporate them as abnormal or atypical. Preferred communication or communicative activities within these systems, especially our education systems or even speech pathology intervention and assessment include eye contact, constant quizzing, parental narration of their own activities, peppering the children with questions, the use of display questions, etc. are often unnatural norms and speech acts for many speech communities.

We also have to be very careful about “using non-mainstream ways of speaking as deficient and seeing social class like low socioeconomic status as a proxy or variable for ethnic differences” and saying that they're deficient because of their low-income status when indeed those behaviors and practices may actually be cultural in nature (Johnson, Johnson & Hetrick; 2020; Rogoff, 2003; Valencia, 2010).

Language as Cultural Practice

"Much of the miscommunication between members of different ethnic groups occurs because of fundamental differences in the values placed on communication itself (Scollon, Scollon, & Scollon, 1981)." I really like this quote because it helps us understand that we have to think about the values placed on communication and the differences that might exist.

We discussed the cultural practices in a broader sense so let’s relate that to language as a cultural practice. Let's reflect back on our culture, and by that, I'm referring to a broader, mainstream cultural idea. In no way am I trying to overgeneralize mainstream practice as I know there's a lot of variety and variation within the US culture. But some of the mainstream language practices that we engage in frequently within mainstream US culture are:

  • Adults are the primary caregivers to young children​
  • Typically interact with children in dyadic, one-on-one fashion​
  • Encouraging children to talk a great deal is valued​
  • Adults frequently intervene to offer step-by-step verbal explanations​
  • Children are encouraged to ask questions​
  • Children encouraged to display knowledge​

(van Kleeck, 1994)​

This display of knowledge by children isn't present in all cultures, but it's definitely present in our mainstream culture. If you think about children between the ages of 1-3 years old, it seems that the first thing we ask them to do is to make farm animal sounds. Then, later on, we ask them colors, shapes, and numbers.  They are really encouraged to display knowledge.  This serves them well when they get to school which is also largely based on the mainstream culture. Most of these things seem normal or natural to us. If we reflect on the definitions of cultural practice, some of the above bullet points may even seem morally correct to us if we are looking at them through our own cultural lens.

Examples of Value-Driven Language Practices

Let's discuss some other examples of language practices that are also value-driven in other cultural communities. Again, these are not meant to be over-generalizations of these cultural groups. There is variation in many, many ways. These are just examples of possible cultural practices that I pulled from the literature to illustrate some differences.

The first example is based on a North Carolina community that Shirley Brice Heath studied in the 1970s. This was an African-American working-class rural community. She stated that within this community, adults believe babies “come up” as talkers and that adults cannot make babies talk. Instead, adults praise their nonverbal responses which they feel are more developmentally appropriate for communication at that age. That's different from some mainstream cultural practices.

According to Johnston & Wong (2002), Chinese parents value social interdependence and hold only modest performance expectations for preschoolers rather than treating them as equal conversation partners.

Latino families tend to value adult-directed over child-focused experiences and promote child obedience over autonomy (Cycyk and Iglesias, 2015). Additionally, it is generally considered impertinent or rude for persons lower in the social hierarchy such as a grandson or daughter-in-law to make eye contact or disagree with persons of a higher familial status (Faroqi-Shah, 2012).

Another example of value-driven language practices is treating the child as a conversational partner, asking known-answer questions, praising children's responses, labeling, providing running commentary, and expanding on children's vocalizations (Rogoff, 2003). These are cultural language practices that are valued by most of the white mainstream middle-class community in our society. But that doesn't mean they're "normal" or "typical" or the "right way". They are simply one way of teaching language that is prevalent because of how and what we value as a cultural community.

Moving Beyond Assumptions

What do we need to do? We must move beyond assumptions. We must understand what people from different communities do rather than determining that another group isn't doing what we do.

We don't want to jump to conclusions that another culture’s practices are barbaric or deficient or due to poverty when they could really just be cultural practice differences. Our judgment value should be well informed by the meaning of people's actions within their own communities, goals, and practices. For example, when I mentioned seeing somebody discipline their child in a way that's different from mine, I want to reflect and understand why they might be doing that and what might be the value that they hold in disciplining in that way.

We have to pay closer attention to the ways that distinct community goals relate to ideas of development, language, child-rearing, literacy, et cetera. As an SLP, it's important to try to understand when we see things that look different and try to interpret them as goals that are cultural.

Culturally Relative Values, Beliefs, and Practices Underlie Parent-Child Interactions

We can look at the specific areas where language as cultural practice may impact language development variations. Differences and parent-child interactions can vary from culture to culture. There are five areas in which language development can vary based on these practices (Van Kleek, 1994).

The first area is aspects of social organization related to interaction. Who talks to small children, in what context, and about what topics within their family structure or cultural structure? Dyadic interaction is a predominant pattern in mainstream Western culture, however, multiparty interaction dominates in many other cultures. So, instead of that one-on-one interaction, multiparty interaction may be encouraged and might be different. For example, if we're looking at studies on language development and comparing other cultures to how we talk to children using child-directed speech, there may be differences and variations in the communication that children hear in different ways.

The second area is the value of talk. There are many cultural differences and attitudes towards the amount of talk that is valued, the role of talk in teaching the child a wide variety of skills, and the role of verbal skills in children's display of knowledge. This comes into play when we look at research, such as the word gap theory, thinking about how parents talk to their children and how there are differences in how talk is valued in different cultural communities. Are we looking at deficits or are we really looking at cultural differences?  This is when we want to think about why a parent engages with their child in a certain way. How they value talk within their home and within their community and how we can work from that place as SLPs.

The third consideration is how status is handled in interaction. I gave an example of that earlier, but in American mainstream culture adults are certainly allowed to initiate interaction with children, and children are also encouraged to initiate interactions with adults. That's not always the case in other cultures.

Beliefs about intentionality is the fourth consideration. In American mainstream culture, children are treated as intentional from birth. This is done by engaging the infant in conversational dialogue, often interpreting their prelinguistic behaviors such as their vocalizations and their babbling.  In some cultures, it is viewed that infants are not intentional and they don't focus on trying to interpret those types of prelinguistic behaviors.

The last area is beliefs about teaching language to children. A number of cultures believe language is acquired by observation as are other skills. The ability to learn language is not tied to any overt production of speech. There are just different values within various cultural communities on how language is taught to children.

One point we must consider as we continue to view language development through our own cultural professional lens and what we've learned about language development, is that even with all of these variations and differences, children learn to talk and communicate effectively and efficiently within their cultural communities.  Even though it's different than the way we might do it or think it is the best way, children across the world learn to talk.

Language Variation and Development

When we talk more specifically about language variation and development, we often look at their differences in specific language features such as phonology, morphology, or syntax rather than considering the cultural variations in their language learning.  This is especially true for children who may be considered emergent bilingual, bilingual, non-mainstream dialect speakers, emergent bi-dialectal, bi-dialectal speakers; those children who speak multiple languages or multiple dialects.

There are vast variations in cultural practices for second language development outcomes. For example, none of the groups mentioned above are homogenous groups. There's so much variation within each group of development depending on context, culture, and practice.

Linguistic features may develop differently due to differential use and frequency within a cultural community or communities of engagement in many different areas (e.g., morphosyntactic, phonology, narratives, pragmatics).

Tabor’s Stages of Second Language Acquisition

Tabor’s Stages of Second Language Acquisition is an example of how culture influences the stages of development. Research was conducted on preschool children who were beginning to learn a second language. The researchers went into preschool and developed four stages:

  1. Home Language Use
  2. Nonverbal Period (Silent Period)
  3. Telegraphic and Formulaic Speech
  4. Productive Language Use

Stage 2 is commonly referred to as the silent period.  The silent period is something that researchers are starting to think differently about and are considering that we normalize certain instructional practices and teacher expectations that treat children's lack of L2 oral use is expected, accepted, and benefitting language learning when there might be other ways that their language could be developed differently.

The silent period is viewed in the context of schools’ subtractive bilingual and English-only classrooms and doesn’t consider if the context is additive for bilingualism or if it adopts trans-languaging strategies.  This is just another point to consider when we think about how cultural practices can influence or change our ideas of language development. 

The input varies a lot within language variation in development. For example, Emergent Bilinguals' rate of verb morphological development is influenced by their L1 because their first language depends on the morphology of their first language and how that affects their second language. But other variables such as their English lexicon and input distributional factors also need to be taken into consideration.

The characteristics of a child’s L2 development, in particular the rate of development, and substantial individual variation, presents challenges when we talk about assessment.

Additionally, there are different levels of development of L1 and L2 actually depending on what the supports are within each of those language systems for developing each language.

Non-Mainstream Dialect Speakers

We can also talk about non-mainstream dialect speakers in a similar way and how this development might influence the way we talk about dialectal differences. Speakers of a particular dialect variation are not a homogenous group. The use of dialect may vary by a range of factors including age, gender, region, degree of cultural affiliation, or separation. Language, culture, and identity influence the first dialect and the second dialect development depending on how individuals want to identify what language system is more useful within their cultural identity.

Also, the value placed on home language or dialect by school culture may also impact their first dialect or second dialect development. For example, they're not formally taught the structure of their own language system in school when they speak a different home dialect and that may influence how they value and how they feel about their dialectal use.

Assessment Challenges

We inquire about language as it relates to linguistic features in our assessment.  We might think about phonology, morphology, and syntax, but we really don't make as many considerations about language interactions, values, and practices in the home and community.

Our standardized test stimuli are often reflective of the concepts, vocabulary, and language practices used in white middle-class school settings, as well as on familiar interaction patterns in mainstream culture.  We also know that there's a disproportionate representation in normative samples of standardized tests that privilege the white mainstream population.

Standardized Test Biases

There is bias in many of the tests we administer.  Predominantly, we think about linguistic bias. For example, if a test did not make adaptations for morphological differences of the plural -s rules for African-American speakers, it would have a linguistic bias.

Situational bias, though, is when the cultural communication style of the child and SLP are not the same. Format bias is the use of contexts and formats that are unfamiliar to the child. Even something like pointing to a picture in a book might hold bias. Value bias is when responses to a test question based on cultural or social norms of one group are considered correct, but those of another group are considered incorrect.  An example of this is a child using functional labeling for an object (e.g., scissors) instead of labeling the object itself.

Culturally Informed Assessment

There is a framework for providing culturally informed assessment that I really like by Lewis and colleagues. It’s called the 360-degree approach to assessment and is a way to provide a more holistic and comprehensive type of assessment.

One example of a 360-degree approach is talking to families.  We want to engage with families and figure out who their child is, who their family is, and what their language practices might be.

Alberta Language Development Questionnaire (ALDeQ)

A tool that I really like to get a conversation started is the Alberta Language Development Questionnaire (Paradis et al., 2010) that asks the parents questions specific to the child’s language development and what might be typical within that cultural community. For example, they ask, “How old was your child when he began to put words together to make sentences?” But then they further ask, “When you think about other children in your culture that you know at this age, do you think your child was different when he or she started to use language or the same?”

When looking at current abilities in the first language, the questionnaire asks, “Compared with other children of the same age, how do you think that your child expresses him or herself? Does your child pronounce words? Does your child produce correct sentences?” This is reiterated to the parent that this is in their first language and their home language compared to other children who also speak that language.

Ethnographic Interviewing

Another great approach is ethnographic interviewing and we have a lot of that information in our literature. Carol Westby has produced much of that research  (Westby, Burda, & Mehta, 2003). Ethnographic interviewing with a family is important. By using more open-ended questions, we can attempt to understand the communicative practices that are used in the home and community environments.  We can understand the social situations the child and family participate in, including the people involved, places, events, objects, et cetera. Asking open-ended questions allows parents to talk about the social situations in their lives. By asking these questions, the interviewer learns what a family considers important in their world.

Some examples of the types of questions that are involved in ethnographic interviewing that can inform our gathering of information of cultural practices are:

  • Grand Tour Questions: Elicit information about broad experiences. Example: Tell me about a typical day for your child.
  • Mini Tour Questions:  Ask the parent to describe a specific activity or event. Example: Tell me about a typical mealtime with your child.  This type of question can help you understand if there is communication in that situation.  Is that a context for communication within your culture?
  • Experience Questions: Ask about experience in a particular setting. Tell me about your experience with your child’s school.

We are asking about the child's experience or the parents' experience. Further, by considering the different language practices that the family is engaging in at home such as who talks to small children, the value of talk in the home, beliefs about teaching language to children, et cetera, we can come up with additional questions that might help us understand the families at-home language practices.  These questions can inform your assessment and intervention and can assist in finding at-home recommendations that are consistent with the family's language practices.

Questions about Language Practices and Values in Communicative Interactions

Some questions that I like to ask are:

  1. Who does your child talk with the most at home? In your family?  In community activities?
  2. What activities does your child engage in at home where they talk the most? 
  3. During what activities does your child hear adult(s) or child(ren) talking?
  4. Who does your child prefer to spend time with?
  5. Who does your child like to play with?
  6. What are some of your child’s favorite out-of-school activities?
  7. What are some important things you teach your child at home?

These are examples of questions that can help us understand the cultural practices that the child and the family might be engaging in around language.

I want to highlight some additional ideas that can help guide you in understanding variations in language development.  Obviously, if there's a language difference, use interpreters, or if there are cultural differences use a cultural broker. That could be somebody within the community, somebody within the family structure, somebody that knows that culture well who could serve to help you understand that culture better.

We can conduct language sampling within a specific cultural context. Think about what the typical speaking environments and conversational partners are with that child and get a language sample in those cultural environments.

Narrative sampling can also be done. Use appropriate narrative sampling tools within that particular cultural community. How do children hear narratives within that culture? Are they hearing storybooks read to them or are they more practiced in personal narrative storytelling?

Dynamic assessment can also be used, especially if we need to rely on some standardized measures.  I really like to use test, teach, then retest, especially when I'm doing vocabulary assessments that might be culturally informed with prior knowledge.

Also, norm-referenced test modifications are something that we can do. We can allow credit for culturally acceptable responses, we can vary our prompting, we can consult with a family on the cultural appropriateness of items. I do this often. I work mostly with preschool children, but I do a lot with pragmatics. It's difficult to assess pragmatics within a cultural context unless I know that the pragmatic skills I'm assessing in a child are actually appropriate and expected within that child’s cultural community. It’s always a good idea to ask the parent if they would expect this behavior within their own cultural community or family context.

Norm-referenced test modifications can also include scoring a test twice - once according to the manual’s instruction and the second time with adjustment so that you can compare the results.


Finally, we must consider intervention for inclusive language development practices. I liked this quote by Ida Stockman that is from a 2011 article on African-American English and moving from deficit to difference perspective. She says, “The motivation and success of learning will be influenced further by whether intervention strategies respect deeper layers of culture as related to social interaction patterns, child-rearing, and caregivers self-perceived empowerment to work collaboratively with therapists.”

Some general considerations for intervention include:

  • Engage your families and identify goals that are relevant for participation in their family and community.
  • Engage in intervention practices that are not just culturally responsive, but culturally sustaining. We don’t want to just use practices that bridge the child's first language or home culture to the school culture. We also want to think about how we can help families maintain and sustain the cultural practices that are important to them.
  • Engage families and select intervention materials that facilitate cultural inclusivity. Be cautious in recommending “at-home” activities or “parent training” that conflicts with cultural values. Meaning, understand those home language practices and make sure what you're recommending doesn't conflict with those.
  • In a systematic review by Larson and colleagues in the studies that they reviewed, interventions that were both linguistically and culturally responsive were most effective for improving children's language abilities in L2 as well as and or L1.

Another consideration for intervention includes a concept called the “Funds of Knowledge”. It’s widely used in educational literature and the premise is that people are competent and have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge. This applies to all the families that we work with and it’s up to us to find out what those funds of knowledge are so that we can incorporate them into our practices.  Some examples of what families do are:

  • Family outings such as visiting a museum
  • Household responsibilities such as feeding pets, preparing meals, household chores
  • Instructional activities, such as planting a garden, reading, crafts. What are you teaching your children? What are they doing at home?
  • Family professions such as teacher, carpenter, dental hygienist

What skills do they teach their children in regard to those activities?

Another consideration is Funds of Identity which focuses on what the child might find valuable, including objects, activities, or people who are part of the child's experience (Llopart & Esteban-Guitart, 2017). Family journals are an example.  Children and families produce their own stories that connect with stories or experiences they had read and or heard.

Another example is using cultural artifacts where teachers ask students to bring cultural artifacts from their lives outside of school that carry rich identity resonances and talk/teach about the social-cultural meaning. We can bring these kinds of things into our intervention settings.

Photographs taken by students were also used to document funds of knowledge and socio-cultural practices in the home and community.

Culture Matters

Geneva Gay has a great quote in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching. She says, “You can't teach what and who you don't know.” We're responsible for knowing who our children and families are and what they value and find important in the way that they talk to and teach their children.  It is our professional and ethical responsibility to integrate these traditions, customs, values, and beliefs into our service delivery.

Questions and Answers

How do we carry out some of our standardized assessments when we know that the norms are not standardized for different groups? How do we determine if they really have a language deficit as opposed to a difference when we don't have the norms for every cultural group?

Those are some big questions and it’s hard because we don’t have the tools. However, I think we have to have the knowledge, more than tools and we have to communicate with families. Honestly, that is where I get my best information. I do use standardized tools in my assessment but I also understand that I might need to teach a child how to point to a picture before I start the standardized assessment. I might ask a parent, is this something that you would expect your child to be able to do? But usually, a child can learn things pretty quickly especially if it is just a difference. You can teach them how to point if they're not used to that.

I think it's just in the assumptions of the standardized testing where it is a little bit challenging if we're truly following a standardized format.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act actually tells us that we do not have to use standardized assessments especially if it’s not normed for the particular populations that we serve. So, I might use standardized tests as a guideline or as a starting point, but then I really rely on my alternative assessments to inform the greater part of my assessment in making decisions and determinations about difference versus disorder.

How do you address a behavior a child is displaying that is a cultural difference and is an acceptable part of their culture, but within a school environment, it's interfering with the child's ability to communicate effectively and is not something that we normally “permit” or find “appropriate” in our school environment but it's culturally acceptable for that child's culture?

That's hard.  I think we can value a child's home culture, but also ask them to respect the school culture as well, right?  Teaching children how to adapt and be functional in both cultures is important. I think sometimes what's missed though is telling children that a behavior is wrong or inappropriate, even a language behavior. Behaviors or dialects, for example, can be valued as a cultural practice, but we also want to explain and help children understand when certain behaviors might be valued differently and in what contexts.

Is it acceptable for us to expect some adaptation or some code-switching of sorts in certain situations like between their cultural norms at home versus what we want to see in a school environment perhaps, or some other specific social situation?

There are so many ways that I can answer that. If I'm teaching my multicultural course and really trying to dig into theoretical discussions or social policy discussions, I might think in the current environment to teach that as long as we're valuing and legitimizing the cultural practices of language practices and the language variations, that's really what's important.

Are content bias and format bias the same thing?


Thank you for this very timely topic. I am someone from a different country and culture and in my clinical and personal experience, we have to also be aware that some parents want to assimilate their children into the generally accepted cultural norm in the new country, environment, or culture in terms of their speech and language development. I think that the model you suggested for assessment would catch this. I truly have experienced having a caregiver or parent present who has validated what was assessed and she has found that to be very helpful.

That's a great comment. I think it's all about talking to the families and caregivers. Assimilation is something that also really influences differences in variations in language development.


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Hobek, A. (2021). Language Development in Non-Mainstream Cultures. SpeechPathology.com, Article 20441. Available from www.speechpathology.com

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amy hobek

Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP

Amy Hobek, PhD, CCC-SLP is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati, in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department. She provides clinical supervision and direct services at Arlitt Child Development Center, a lab preschool at the University of Cincinnati. Additionally, her teaching and scholarship focus on child language and literacy development with an emphasis on valuing and legitimizing cultural and linguistic variations in these areas within individuals, families, and communities.

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