When children are suspected of having difficulty with language acquisition, assessing their language proficiency and comparing it to children of a similar age and background is necessary. For monolingual speakers of a majority language such as English, this is a relatively straightforward task. However where the child speaks more than one language, assessing their language development becomes complicated. Furthermore, even when tests are available in a child’s other languages, they generally do not take into account the fact that a bilingual child’s linguistic knowledge is affected by the quality and quantity of exposure to that language, and so any comparison to normative data available will not be meaningful. Developing assessments for bilingual children is therefore an important but challenging task. It could be argued that developing assessments for bilingual children who speak a minority language presents even more challenges. This is because minority languages often have relatively few native speakers, lack national recognition or do not have a written form.
Using examples from Irish, Welsh, Wapichana, and where English is a minority language, The focus of this colloquium will be on the various challenges that present themselves when developing assessments for minority language bilinguals and attempts that have been made to overcome these. Irish, a minority language in Ireland, is an increasingly endangered language. However, as the focus of revival attempts has been on L2 learners, the needs of the L1 speakers have been left behind. Furthermore, varied levels of Irish language exposure in both quantity and quality combined with falling numbers of L1 and native speakers means that any tests developed have insufficient data to produce well-defined ‘norms’ and so are not used clinically. Welsh, although a relatively stronger native language, is also subject to reduced levels of exposure and input as other minority languages, meaning that language-specific items that take longer to acquire are vulnerable in both their oral and written forms. Finally, where languages tests are based on a notional standard variety, comparing the performance of children who are exposed to a poorly defined variety of this language is problematic. In a country like Israel, English is in the minority and so tests developed for standard speakers of English can lead to over-identification of language difficulties. A similar issue arises when testing minority speakers of English in the US.
These papers represent diverse but common problems in developing minority language assessments to help us identify children who are vulnerable to the educational and social implications of language impairment. The proposed solutions and implications of the research should help those interested in developing monitory language assessments for bilingual children in their own contexts, and the on-going problems with identifying those bilingual children in need of intervention.