Los Angeles Times
Sunday, May 24, 1998
Experts fear the battle to kill bilingual education may have
serious consequences for students who need speech therapy, but are unable
to communicate in English.
By VANESSA HUA, Times Staff Writer
NORTH HOLLYWOOD--Juan Rodas has learned to watch his tongue.
The 5-year-old stared into a tiny mirror framed in the belly of a pink,
one-eyed cat one recent rainy morning and was careful to keep his tongue
behind his teeth as he practiced the sound, "sss, sss, sss."
Sol, cebra, zapato--sun, zebra, shoe--the
chubby-cheeked boy recited, as speech and language therapist Robin Garrett
held up flashcards in English and Spanish.
A year ago, the Fair Avenue Elementary School
kindergartner was diagnosed with a severe speech disorder known as aphasia,
a blanket term for not being able to communicate. But Juan was lucky: His
therapist could treat him in his native language, an anomaly at a time
when, across the country, speech therapists are in short supply and those
who speak more than one language are even less common.
In the great debate over bilingual education,
bilingual speech therapists may seem a mere footnote. But educators worry
that if Proposition 227, the initiative to eliminate bilingual classes,
is approved by voters June 2, the district's estimated 60 bilingual speech
therapists will be overrun with poor English speakers who are mistakenly
referred for treatment. The proposition would not eliminate bilingual therapy.
"We'd go back to a time when kids who
didn't know English flunk out and are seen as being retarded," predicted
Silvia Martinez, of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn., based in
"Speech and language pathologists will
start receiving referrals for special education," she said.
Without proper treatment, students with
impaired speech often have trouble reading or writing and risk being teased,
all of which can damage self-esteem and lead to more problems in schools.
In severe cases, children are unable to carry on a conversation or end
Juan, the North Hollywood boy, spoke so
little that he was initially recommended for special education classes
by a speech evaluator. But the shy boy remained at elementary school after
his mother and school officials agreed to try mainstreaming with supplementary
classes. Garrett said her knowledge of Spanish helped the son of a Guatemalan
immigrant to start mimicking the sounds most familiar to him.
"It would be much harder if I didn't
know Spanish," Garrett said. "I can tell what's going on, how
to pick out an error."
Bilingual Speech Therapists Are Rare
Bilingual clinicians are invaluable, school
officials said, since it's up to them to discern whether mistakes are due
to an unfamiliarity with English or from a deeper problem. Yet less than
1% of speech therapists are bilingual, according to a 1995 survey of Speech-Language
Hearing Assn. members.
Speech therapists already carry heavy caseloads,
in part because their rigorous education and training dissuades large numbers
from entering the profession. Demand for speech therapists exceeds supply
not only in the Los Angeles Unified School District but nationwide.
Although the state recommends that school
speech specialists have caseloads no greater than 55 students each, Los
Angeles Unified's 260 therapists are treating more than 17,000 students
with speech and language disorders--an average of 65 students each. The
therapists travel to as many as three campuses a week, seeing student after
student in harried half-hour to hourlong sessions.
"The shortage is more than anyone can
imagine. The need is beyond words," said Carolyn Conway Madding, a
communicative disorders professor at Cal State Long Beach.
The road to rehabilitation can be especially
difficult for children not proficient in English--all the way from assessment
to treatment to parent involvement. And for reasons scientists have yet
to fully explain, said professor Hortencia Kayser of New Mexico State University,
minorities are more likely to have speech and language disorders--15% rather
than 5% to 10% in the general population, possibly because of malnutrition
and other socioeconomic factors.
By law, assessment of the speech problem
must be in the native language, with district translators or volunteers
called in to assist. But in most cases, district officials say, the months
or years of therapy are in English.
"They're basically teaching in English,"
said Judy Bossier, district coordinator for special education. She added
that students could follow by example certain exercises, such as intonation
or articulation, without knowing English.
Some experts said treating children in a
language they're still struggling to learn slows progress. For example,
a child who speaks with an English vocabulary of a 3-year-old but functions
at the cognitive level of a 10-year-old may not be working to his full
potential with a monolingual therapist.
Learning English Is Additional Challenge
Even those with no speech impediments have
trouble learning English--a process all the more difficult for students
still acquiring the rudiments of a language.
"All that time is wasted learning another
language, when they should be tapping into existing skills," Martinez
In turn, their parents--who may have limited
English skills themselves--may be unable to reinforce the lessons learned.
They may speak less, for fear of confusing the child with another language.
Or they may try to speak English, using incorrect grammar, syntax, or articulation.
"Parents should speak to their children
in the language that comes from the heart," said Henriette Langdon,
a special education professor at San Jose State University.
As for concerns that children would be delayed
in learning English, research suggests that they can better transfer their
speech skills from one language to another once they have mastered the
basics of speech in any language, said Vera Gutierez-Clellen, a professor
at San Diego State University.
Shortage Leads to Different Approach
Confronted by a shortfall of bilingual therapists,
clinicians are turning to other strategies. Some rely on volunteer translators
or use "sheltered English," which uses repetition, simplified
vocabulary and visual cues. It's a long process. English-only therapy generally
moves at a much slower pace than treatment in the native language of the
"It's harder," said Barbara Staley,
a longtime speech specialist at Montague Street Elementary School in Pacoima
who knows a smattering of Spanish.
One recent morning, Staley practiced "t" sounds with three Spanish-speaking
charges by having them flick red licorice twists with their tongues. They
also played an English version of picture bingo, describing what was depicted
in each square as they covered it with a matching card.
Staley said she felt lucky to have Anna
Castaneda, 32, a bilingual mother of two boys who wanted to become more
involved in the schools. In one session, Castaneda helped one of Staley's
Spanish speakers, an 8-year-old girl, recognize the difference between
a door and a lighthouse, which the Pacoima child had never seen before.
Then, together, they practiced pronouncing the English word, "lighthouse."
Having a trained translator or assistant
can bridge the language and culture gap, Staley said. Educators suggested
that therapists look close to home for help.
"We need to go into the community, into their neighborhood, into their
temples," said Li-Rong Lily Cheng, a professor of communicative disorders
at San Diego State University. "Our work is not bound by brick walls
or the gates of the school."
For Juan Rodas, the effects of bilingual
speech therapy have spread beyond the classroom. His mother, Magdalena,
said that after Juan began treatment, he became more confident and social,
and now plays with other children.
"I'm happy," she said in Spanish. "He speaks with people
Times staff writer Jose Cardenas contributed to the article.