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Ethnographic and sociolinguistic analysis of children’s language skills

Effective communication requires the integration of multiple factors, including linguistic, cultural, cognitive, and neurological variables. Ethnography and sociolinguistics may help us to understand the interaction between these factors.  The application of ethnographic and sociolinguistic principles to speech-language pathology (SLP) research and practice is critical. Ethnographic and sociolinguistic analysis expands our understanding of an individual’s communication history, language profile, and psycholinguistic processing.

The analysis of spontaneous language samples is a crucial tool for SLPs involved in research and pediatric practice. Knowledge of the cultural and sociolinguistic contexts in which children acquire and use language increases the productive elicitation and accurate analysis of children’s language skills.

Language samples from Latino children in the United States can serve as an illustration. To stimulate productivity in the collection of language samples, clinicians need to acknowledge language socialization practices consistent with a child’s developmental background. For example, storytelling as entertainment is common in Mexican-American homes; consequently, family-related topics in storytelling may lead to greater expressive output when used with Mexican-American children.

Similarly, elicitation of appropriate language requires suitable techniques. Some studies have pointed to effective strategies. For example, story retelling can be more fruitful than spontaneous story production in eliciting language in both preschool and school-age of Latino children.

The accurate examination and diagnostic assessment of language samples must be grounded in the sociolinguistic contexts affecting language input during acquisition. Sound language analysis can help SLPs understand children’s developmental linguistic changes in monolingual and bilingual contexts and assess post-intervention linguistic outcomes. For example, sensitive measures of language growth in preschool Mexican-American Spanish-speaking children can include Spanish mean length of utterance (MLU) in words and subordination index (number of dependent clauses per sentence) acquired from story retellings. Further, preschool Spanish-speaking children receiving bilingual intervention have shown significant productivity in these two measures within the same school year as compared with children in English-only language interventions.

Language analysis also can detect cross-linguistic effects or grammatical changes caused by the unequal use of languages in bilingual environments. For example, Spanish sentence length—prior to the acquisition of English as a second language—can predict growth in English grammar in preschool children who speak Spanish. In situations of language loss (attrition), the complexity of certain linguistic elements—such as verbs in Spanish—may weaken as children develop proficiency in English and use Spanish less frequently.

Linking ethnographic and sociolinguistic factors to language sampling facilitates appropriate methodology and diagnostic interpretations of children’s grammatical development. Given the variability in acquisitioned scenarios across sociocultural contexts, much research in language sampling in specific groups of monolingual and bilingual children is required before generalizations can be made.



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