Los Angeles Times

Sunday, May 24, 1998

Native Tongues
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 Maryland.
      "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 up illiterate.
      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 said.
      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 student.
      "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 more."
Times staff writer Jose Cardenas contributed to the article.