LINGUIST List 25.2391

Mon Jun 02 2014

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Gathercole (ed.) (2013)

Editor for this issue: Mateja Schuck <>

Date: 09-Feb-2014
From: Liubov Baladzhaeva <>
Subject: Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole
TITLE: Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Liubov Baladzhaeva, University of Haifa


This book is the first of the two edited volumes dedicated to uncovering and
solving issues in the testing of bilinguals. The contributors to the volumes
are committed to demonstrating how bilinguals are different from monolinguals
and how this difference is not a deficiency. The current standardized tests
used in assessment of both children and adults are, according to the
researchers, not adequate for bilinguals as they have been normed on
monolinguals. Most existing tests (mainly those that test language development
and those used for diagnosing language impairments) use monolinguals as a
standard, while normal bilingual development can be deemed abnormal by these
tests. This not only hurts bilinguals by classifying them as
“language-impaired”, but also prevents specialists from diagnosing real
language impairments in bilinguals when they are present. The book is both a
study and a guidance manual for educators and language specialists that asks
them to value and celebrate language diversity and use it in order to
facilitate academic and social success of bilinguals.

Chapter 1: Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole. Assessment of Multi-tasking
Wonders: Music, Olympics and Language.

The first chapter outlines the goals and the composition of this edited volume
and provides a short summary of issues raised in the volume and chapters that
address them. The main goal of the first volume is to demonstrate why current
standardized tests normed on monolinguals are not adequate for testing
bilinguals and what might be realistic expectations for the linguistic
development of bilinguals. The second volume will offer solutions to the
issues raised in the first volume.

The main reason for the inadequacy of existing tests is that bilingual
language development is different from monolingual development in both
languages. Currently most school children around the world are expected to
achieve a certain level of language proficiency in an official language in a
certain amount of time, and failing to do so is considered a problem. However,
the norms for these levels and times are based strictly on monolingual
development, not taking into account bi- or multi-lingual children. Content
areas like math or geography are also built on expectations of monolingual
children to achieve certain language mastery. This might prevent bilingual
children from excelling in these areas even when they know the material
because of insufficient command of the language of instruction. Language
deficiencies and impairments are taken very seriously by both parents and
educators, and during the school years language acquisition is one of the main
means of measuring a child’s academic progress. The chapter describes how
multilingualism is often underestimated in modern nation-states, and how being
multilingual sometimes is seen as an impairment in itself and not an
accomplishment. Multilinguals are compared by the author to talented musicians
playing many instruments or athletes excelling in different disciplines.

Chapter 2: Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole, Enlli Môn Thomas, Emily J. Roberts,
Catrin O. Hughes and Emma K. Hughes. Why Assessment Needs to Take Exposure
into Account: Vocabulary and Grammatical Abilities in Bilingual Children.

This chapter raises the issue of norming used in standardized tests. Current
tests take a monolingual child as the norm for assessment of language
development; however, a monolingual child has much more exposure to her only
language than a bilingual has to either of her two languages, and that might
lead to later development of some exposure-dependent features in either or
both languages. Also, testing a bilingual only in one of her languages might
lead to underestimation of the rich and complex language system that a child
has. The study described in this chapter investigates the influence of
exposure on test performance in Welsh-English bilingual children. It compares
monolingual English children and English-Welsh and Welsh-English bilinguals
using receptive vocabulary tests. The study demonstrates that in younger
children the amount of exposure to a given language conditions the development
in this language. The level attained in one language does not necessarily
reflect the child’s development in other language; therefore, testing young
bilinguals just in one language will tell us very little about their overall
linguistic development. However, in adolescents who over time gain enough
exposure in both their languages, the test results become closer to those of
monolinguals and similar performance in both languages can be observed.
Another issue the researchers look at is cross-linguistic influence and
carryover of grammatical structures. This was tested by using forced-choice
picture tasks. Overall, no carryover on the linguistic level was found.

The authors advocate for a new model of measuring the performance of bilingual
children. In such a model there should be two standards of comparison
developed: a child should be measured relative to all children in her age
group and to children from a similar linguistic background. Two scores
obtained using these comparisons would give a comprehensive picture of the
bilingual child’s language development.

Chapter 3: Shula Chiat, Sharon Armon-Lotem, Theodoros Marinis, Kamila
Polišenská, Penny Roy and Belinda Seeff-Gabriel. Assessment of Language
Abilities in Sequential Bilingual Children: The Potential of Sentence
Imitation Tasks.

The issue raised in this chapter is that testers and educators often do not
know a bilingual child’s L1 and therefore cannot conduct tests in it. The
authors develop a language-neutral test in the form of sentence repetition in
the L2 (meaning the official language of instruction). They review evidence
that in monolingual children sentence repetition can indicate language
impairments. The advantage of using such a task for the testing of bilinguals
is that it is relatively less affected by language exposure and experience
than other testing measures. Four groups of bilingual children in three
different countries were examined: Russian-Hebrew and English-Hebrew in
Israel, Russian-German in Germany and Turkish-English in the UK. When compared
to the monolingual children, most of the bilinguals performed within the
monolingual ranges. However, children whose age of L2 onset was after 2 years
old fell below the monolingual range. Socioeconomic background also played an
important role in the child’s success. One of the limitations of this task is
that great differences in socioeconomic background can lead to different
results in children with similar linguistic backgrounds. The conclusion was
that sentence-repetition tasks with real words are a valid means of measuring
L2 proficiency in bilinguals; however it is not yet clear whether they can be
used for detecting language impairments, since it first requires norming on
bilinguals and this norming should differ according not only to language, but
also to socioeconomic background.

Chapter 4: Netta Abugov and Dorit Ravid. Assessing Yiddish Plurals in
Acquisition: Impacts of Bilingualism.

This chapter takes on an understudied issue; namely how a child can be tested
in a language that is still developing dynamically. The language in question
is modern Hasidic Yiddish spoken in Israel. Due to the contact with Hebrew the
language is rapidly undergoing grammatical and lexical changes and sometimes
it is not clear what the standard usage is. The authors collected data on
plural forms of nouns in adults and then tested children in order to see which
forms (in cases where there is more than one form acceptable) they would
choose. Children mostly chose the forms with the highest frequency, but they
also tended to overgeneralize or adopt some rules of pluralization from
Hebrew. This finding is also relevant for testing in a language with less
dynamic on-going change. The tests might be based on the older or more formal
norm, while children would be sensitive to the new norm, acquiring and
producing it. This study also has important implications for assessing
children from communities where a non-standard dialect is spoken. Often such
children are penalized for using non-standard forms in school settings while
their choice only reflects the normal language acquisition of the community

Chapter 5: Rocío Pérez-Tattam, Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole, Feryal Yavas
and Hans Stadthagen-González. Measuring Grammatical Knowledge and Abilities in
Bilinguals: Implications for Assessment and Testing.

This chapter examines educated bilingual adults: simultaneous or early
Spanish-English bilinguals in Miami. Three groups of bilinguals were examined
from different home environments: both Spanish and English at home, only
Spanish, and early Spanish with addition of English spoken at home. While some
tests have shown that bilinguals over time become more similar in performance
to monolinguals, even simultaneous adult bilinguals might still differ in some
aspects of language knowledge and/or performance. This investigation used two
forced-choice picture tasks for testing abilities in English and Spanish. The
study showed that all bilinguals, no matter their home linguistic environment,
performed in the monolingual range on English tests. That is, by the time they
reach adulthood, early and simultaneous bilinguals are able to acquire the
official language as well as monolinguals. There were, though, significant
differences among them in Spanish: those with less exposure to Spanish
performed less well on the tests. Most of the bilinguals also differed from
the monolingual Spanish speakers in their performance, even those with the
greatest exposure to Spanish. This study, like the one in Chapter 2, found
that bilinguals who perform well in one language tend to also perform well in
another language. The results of the study confirm that being bilingual is not
a disadvantage and does not hinder the acquisition of the official language.

Chapter 6: Miguel Á. Pérez, Cristina Izura, Hans Stadthagen-González and
Javier Marín. Assessment of Bilinguals’ Performance in Lexical Tasks Using
Reaction Times.

In this chapter the issue of the sophistication of current tests is raised.
The authors argue that tests that only check the accuracy of responses might
miss some important aspects of lexical knowledge. They propose using reaction
times for testing bilinguals in such tasks as picture naming, visual lexical
decisions and word categorizations. This would, for example, allow accessing
the difficulty of specific words for an individual, since more complex mental
computations require more processing time. Currently reaction times are almost
nonexistent in standard testing procedures accessing linguistic knowledge and
development. However, given modern technology, tasks using reaction times can
be easy to construct and implement. In order to demonstrate the possibility of
using reaction times, the researchers conducted an empirical study that was
able to assess the effect of the order of acquisition on word processing. The
researchers trained monolingual Spanish speakers on new Welsh words in order
to test whether order of acquisition influences processing time. The words
taught were matched in frequency and predicted phonetic and lexical difficulty
for the participants. Early learned words took less time to process than
late-learned words, while there was no significant difference in accuracy.

Chapter 7: Rebecca Burns. Assessment and Instruction in Multilingual

This chapter offers practical instruction on how teachers can welcome
multilingualism in their classrooms and use other languages in instruction
even without actually knowing them. One of the main issues in the education of
bilinguals is that often their L1 is not used in formal education in any way,
when using it could improve their overall academic success and their L2
acquisition in particular. Public display of home languages at school can also
show appreciation for diversity, affirming students’ bilingual identity and
raising their social status. Considering modern migration patterns, one
classroom can contain speakers of many languages, and in many cases it is not
possible to provide an educator who speaks every child’s L1. However, this
chapter shows that not knowing children’s L1s should not be an obstacle for
using them in the classroom. The chapter describes what kind of resources,
especially ones found on the Internet, can be used. For example, the teacher
can use posters and other print materials in the home languages. She can
employ online dictionaries in order to ensure that the learners understand
specific words. Multilingual materials can be used for assignments. The
chapter lists specific materials and resources for some languages that might
be encountered in US classrooms. One of the issues is that in some US states
using languages other than English in classrooms is discouraged or even
prohibited. The author gives advice on a way around such prohibitions, for
example, sending multilingual materials home with a student.

However, the author cautions that using some elements of child’s L1 in the
classroom do not substitute fully for bilingual education.

The chapter’s main target group is US teachers educating L2 English learners.
The author states that one of the goals is to raise teachers’ language

Chapter 8: Jasone Cenoz, Eli Arozena and Durk Gorter. Assessing Multilingual
Students’ Writing Skills in Basque, Spanish and English.

This chapter raises the issue of the effect of home language and language of
instruction on bi- and multilingualism and compares L1 Basque and L1 Spanish
high school students in the Basque country with Basque as the language of
instruction. Spanish and English are taught as foreign languages in their
school. The authors compare the academic performance of L1 Basque and L1
Spanish speakers in all three settings, assessing their writing skills in
Spanish, Basque and English. For these two groups the level of exposure to
Spanish is relatively similar, since Spanish is the main language of the
community outside school; however their exposure to Basque differs
significantly, as Spanish speakers do not encounter much Basque outside
school. The participants wrote essays in each of three languages describing
pictures that were provided by researchers. The essays were then scored for
content, organization, vocabulary, language use and mechanics. While both
groups were similar in their scores for essays in Spanish, L1 Basque students
outperformed L1 Spanish students on both Basque and English essays. While
better results on Basque are expected for the L1 Basque group, as they had
more exposure to the language than L1 Spanish students, it is not clear why
they perform better in English as well. The study demonstrates that even in
the case of multilinguals in the same school settings different linguistic
development patterns can be found, influenced by many factors.

Chapter 9: Stephen J. Caldas. Assessment of Academic Performance: The Impact
of No Child Left Behind Policies on Bilingual Education: A Ten Year

This chapter addresses the impact of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) policy
on the academic performance of US children. The policy charges schools with
the responsibility for raising the academic performance of underachieving
student groups, including children with home languages other than English
(called English Language Learners -- ELLs). The author provides a history of
language education policies in the US and compares test results in Math and
Reading from before and after the NCLB policy was instated in 2001. According
to the author, the policy strongly encourages acquisition of English without
assigning importance to child’s L1. The main focus of the study is
Spanish-English bilinguals, since they are the majority of ELLs in US schools.
The study found that NCBL actually negatively affected this population with
the gap between them and monolinguals increasing after the policy’s adoption.
The issue of defining English learners and how it affects testing policies is
also raised. Currently ELLs are defined as such when they underperform on the
standard tests. Thus by definition ELLs are never able to achieve the same
results as the main population. This prevents educators from seeing the real
results of all children with home languages other than English, as those of
them who perform well on the tests are not counted as ELLs. Another issue is
that under the NCLB policy schools are encouraged to produce good test results
and they train their students to pass tests instead of teaching the material,
which ultimately lowers the quality of education. The author suggests that
language policy in school should be based less on politics and more on
empirical research, since the data demonstrate how the current policies may
not be beneficial either for the children or for the schools.

Chapter 10: Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole. Summary of Issues Surrounding the
Assessment of Bilinguals and the Way Forward to Solutions.

The last chapter once again summarizes the issues raised in the volume. The
author concludes that current test measures used in academic settings should
be revised as they are not adequate for testing bilinguals and multilinguals.


This edited volume raises an important issue of testing bilinguals in
educational settings. The issue is not only theoretical, as the tests in their
current form may both hurt bilingual students’ academic opportunities and
prevent specialists from noticing language impairments in bilingual children.
The volume is of great value for researchers, educators, and education policy
makers. It should definitely be used in teachers’ education programs around
the world to raise their awareness of multilingualism. While all the studies
in this volume are interesting and valuable, on the whole, there is an issue
of coherence. The logic of transition from chapter to chapter is not clear,
and two chapters seem a bit too specific and out of place: Chapter 7 that
provides a practical guide to US teachers and Chapter 9 that reviews the No
Child Left Behind policy. First, these two chapters, unlike the others in this
volume, do not present empirical studies. Second, they both focus strictly on
US education, while the other chapters offer a more general approach. Since
the volume does not address a US audience exclusively, it is not clear why
such specific chapters should be included with no attempt to generalize from
them. Finally, the chapter addressing teachers would make a better
contribution to the second volume that offers solutions to the problems of
educating bilingual students. Organizing the studies in several thematic
sections prefaced by theoretical introductions might have improved the
coherence of the volume.


Liubov Baladzhaeva is a PhD student at the University of Haifa. She is
interested in multilingualism, language acquisition and attrition.

Page Updated: 02-Jun-2014