Differences or Disorders? In the 1980s, Research Focused on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations Features
Features  |   May 01, 2009
Differences or Disorders?
Author Notes
  • Claudia Saad, MS, CCC-SLP, director of multicultural education, can be reached at csaad@asha.org.
    Claudia Saad, MS, CCC-SLP, director of multicultural education, can be reached at csaad@asha.org.×
  • Carol Polovoy, production editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at cpolovoy@asha.org.
    Carol Polovoy, production editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at cpolovoy@asha.org.×
Article Information
Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / Features
Features   |   May 01, 2009
Differences or Disorders?
The ASHA Leader, May 2009, Vol. 14, 24-25. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR7.14062009.24
The ASHA Leader, May 2009, Vol. 14, 24-25. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR7.14062009.24
Fortieth anniversaries are traditionally celebrated with the gift of rubies, a fiery precious gemstone. When used to symbolize ASHA’s celebration of 40 years of diversity, the ruby symbolizes a flame that continues to burn after 40 years of commitment. When ASHA’s diversity flame was lit in 1969 with the inception of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (then the Office of Urban and Ethnic Affairs), little research was available on service delivery specifically to culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) populations, and even less was known about the relationship between culture and language and its impact on professional practice.
The early 1980s marked the beginning of groundbreaking research on CLD populations that supported the distinction between communication differences and disorders. The need for this distinction was relevant to all groups, but it was fueled by the debate on the legitimacy of the native English dialect spoken by many African Americans. This debate and a desire to better serve the speakers of African American English (AAE) motivated the research of trailblazers in the field of communication sciences and disorders such as Orlando Taylor, Ida Stockman, Fay Vaughn-Cooke, Harry Seymour, Kay Payne, and others. Although an earlier decade of sociolinguistic research had described mature AAE speakers, little was known about its development in children.
“Early on, study after study of African American children focused mainly on describing their differences relative to speakers of Standard English, as spoken particularly by those who were white and middle-class and regarded as the prototypic normal group,” explained Ida Stockman, now professor emerita at Michigan State University. “It was not the observation of differences in these earlier studies that was so toxic and uninformative, but the interpretation of African Americans’ lower scores as simply a language or communication deficit.”
No distinction was made between African Americans’ typical and atypical communication differences relative to their own linguistic/cultural group. Even typical dialect patterns were viewed as a deficit that had to be “fixed” in special education and speech-language programs. Stockman noted that an entire classroom of African American children could have been referred to speech treatment because they omitted the verb in sentences like “he tired” or substituted an /f/ for /th/ in “bath,” which were among the typical AAE patterns.
Failure to recognize such typical dialect patterns also could affect audiology practice. “If during a speech discrimination test, the audiologist said the word ‘bath’ with a final ‘th’ sound, and the speaker responded with ‘baf,’ then the audiologist could conclude that hearing was not accurate,” Stockman said. “However, the response could have reflected dialect interference and not speech discrimination difficulty due to a hearing acuity problem.”
New Research Paradigm
Stockman explained that the need to distinguish normal language differences from disorders required two types of research on AAE speakers. “First we needed studies that provided developmental norms appropriate for a particular linguistic/cultural group”—in this case, AAE speakers. “Second, we needed to know more about second-dialect instruction because the normal use of a minority dialect was not acceptable for some speaking situations.”
Obtaining adequate normative data on African American children required researchers to abandon the narrow comparative paradigm that guided much of the earlier research. “The legacy of scholarship during the 1980s was the effort to redefine the framework for doing research on speakers of a minority dialect like AAE,” Stockman said. This need was reinforced by studies across the decade that showed how norm-referenced, standardized tests of speech, language, and cognition penalized speakers of nonmainstream dialects and languages. Researchers used methods to distinguish normal language differences from real speech/language disorders and dispel the notion that different meant “less than.”
In 1980, Stockman and her colleague Fay Vaughn-Cooke received one of the first research grants that applied a revised framework to study African American preschoolers’ language. “We wanted to study African American children using the same methods that were used to study young speakers of other English dialects at that time,” Stockman said. “So there was no comparison group. We elicited longitudinal spontaneous speech samples in the children’s homes. Our analyses focused on the meaning and use of words—not just grammar and pronunciation.”
Their research showed that young African American children used many of the same semantic, pragmatic, and grammatical patterns as other groups, including Standard English-speakers. In 1986, Orlando Taylor’s seminal books on the nature and treatment of communication disorders in CLD populations reflected the new conceptual framework and served as the first texts on the subject.
Stockman acknowledged that the “language difference” perspective was also enabled by scholars concerned with communication disorders in other minority English dialects (e.g., Sol Adler) and languages (e.g., Li-Rong Lilly Cheng, Aquiles Iglesias, Gail Harris, and others).
Second Dialect Acquisition and Accent Reduction
The distinction between a language difference and a disorder meant that speech-language pathologists were no longer expected to treat a speaker’s normal dialect use as a clinical disorder. However, services were needed for speakers who also wanted to include more Standard English patterns in their speech and language.
Accent modification for speakers of English as a second language included intervention frameworks from other fields (e.g., teaching English as a second language), but a conceptual framework had to be created for teaching a second English dialect. Stockman noted that Orlando Taylor, in his 1986 book on treating communication disorders in CLD populations, proposed one of the earliest and most comprehensive frameworks for teaching Standard English as a second dialect. This approach, which applied known principles of second-language learning and contrastive analysis, required professionals to expand a speaker’s existing repertoire as opposed to eradicating an existing system.
Adopting the Difference vs. Disorders Perspective
As the difference vs. disorders research base grew, so did ASHA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. In response to the impact of cultural/linguistic diversity on professional practices, ASHA’s Committee on the Status of Racial Minorities developed the Position Paper on Social Dialects in 1983. This policy document—still a seminal publication—states that dialects such as AAE are not communication disorders, but instead are legitimate, rule-governed linguistic varieties that serve a social solidarity function. The paper also stated that SLPs should focus on assisting those with communication disorders, but could also provide elective services to dialect-speakers who wanted to increase their ability to use Standard English. In an accompanying Q&A article, “Implications of Social Dialects,” Lorraine Cole (then director of the Office of Minority Concerns) addressed members’ key concerns about how to serve dialect-speakers appropriately.
“The work done in the 1980s had a critical impact on our discipline for all groups, not just the minority ones,” Stockman said. “For example, it led us to recognize that normalcy is not absolute, but relative.” Other groups with a noticeably different way of speaking—including non-African Americans who live in rural areas or in certain southern or eastern U.S. regions or even in a particular part of a single city—were also penalized socially and may have been referred for speech services before the difference vs. disorders distinction was made.
The Future
“The research of the 1980s, however groundbreaking, barely made a dent in what was needed to support effective service delivery to minority populations,” Stockman said. “We still needed to chart the normal development of AAE speakers across all the various domains of language inclusive of its meaning and use. Although the new research framework called for exploration of all AAE aspects inclusive of those that did not differ from other English dialects, we needed to know more than was learned during the 1980s about children’s acquisition of the dialect-specific forms used.”
With the emphasis on exposing the negative biases of standardized tests for minority groups during the 1980s, Stockman said, “we did not know much about how the tests could be used along with other assessments to better identify child AAE-speakers with speech-language delays. So standardized test performances by AAE-speaking children and other language minority groups needed to be investigated further.”
Researchers also needed to describe the variability among speakers within a minority group, she said. “Because African Americans had been treated as a homogeneous group, we knew little about how their dialect use varied with social class, gender, geographical location, and other factors. We also needed to know more about the relationship between their dialect use and literacy achievement as well as the effectiveness of interventions for facilitating code-switching, accent reduction, and second dialect acquisition.”
Researchers would focus on these issues in later decades, and Stockman said that she is “proud to have contributed to the positive changes made in the field as a result of research and professional efforts during the 1980s.”
ASHA Seeks Diversity Champions

As part of its celebration of 40 years of diversity, ASHA is seeking nominations for Diversity Champions—members who have made significant contributions to the professions and ASHA through their demonstrated respect and value for differing backgrounds and points of view and their achievement in addressing the impact of culture and/or language on speech-language pathology, audiology, or speech-language or hearing science. All nominations should be submitted online on the ASHA Web site and will be accepted through Aug. 1.

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May 2009
Volume 14, Issue 6