Language Difference Versus Language Disorder: Why Does it Really Matter to Me?

In the world of speech-language pathology, we are often (but not as often as we should) talking about distinguishing language difference versus language disorder.  Firstly, I’ll give a brief background for those of you who aren’t familiar with this concept.  Back in the day (around the late 1960s) our field started to realize that some of the African American kids that were being seeing for having a speech or language disorder, actually were speaking in another dialect (African American English (AAE)  – most of you will know this as Ebonics).  This phenomenon was also being seen in English language learners.  So, the field realized that these language differences that these children were coming to school with were not disorders, but actual linguistic variations.Black boy w Backpack

Therefore, when evaluations occurred in the school setting, the assessments were using norms for Mainstream American English (MAE), not the dialect/language used by that child.  As a result, many kids were being (and continue to be) misdiagnosed as having a speech and/or language disorder.  Consequently, research started to be performed on the speech and language of African American (mostly from low-income communities) children to determine their developmental norms.  Since then, research continues to focus on determining language differences versus disorders and creating culturally relevant assessments and intervention.

In my opinion, I believe we have made progress within the realm of speech-language pathology, but we still have a long way to go, especially in the educational setting.

All of this to say, when I have been challenged by professors and teachers and colleagues about why this differentiation between difference and disorder is so important, I always came back with responses regarding academic trajectory of our Black and Latino boys, and just how it was wrong to “mislabel” someone (even though I have a love/hate relationships with labels).

However, now I realize that one of the main reasons as to why this distinction is important is because of cultural identity.  To tell a child (or even imply to a child) that the dialect they speak is wrong and needs to be fixed, this is telling him that the way his mother speaks is wrong, the way his grandmother tells a story is wrong, the community that taught him how to communicate and express his thoughts is wrong.  So, why is it so important to determine language difference versus disorder…one reason is because it matters to that child’s cultural identity.

Final thoughts:  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am very well aware of the power and socioeconomic mobility that MAE has in our society, I just don’t know if HOW we are telling kids about the way they communicate is the right way.