Elizabeth D. Peña

Personal Spotlight:

We asked scholars to describe some of the following questions: What drew you to do work on Latino youth and families, or another topic that is important to you now? Who was an important mentor to you in this work, or was there a particularly influential study in the field or in a related field? Any particular advice or tips to someone starting out in the field who is doing work in your area?

I started working as a speech-language pathologist in the San Francisco bay area in 1984. At that time, there was a great deal of energy and interest in reducing test bias in children from linguistically diverse backgrounds. As I started my job working in Head Start in San Francisco, I was cognizant of the important legislation including Lau v. Nichols (1964) and the Bilingual Education Act (1968) that recognized the needs of children who did not speak English. But, there was a lack of measures to identify language impairment in young bilingual children and a lack of evidence guiding intervention practices. I worked with Spanish-English emerging bilinguals and there was a lack of tests in Spanish. The few available tests were translations. Some available measures were based on what was known about Spanish development, but these were not normed. So, we were making it up on the basis of the limited available evidence. I went to every workshop I could get to on reducing assessment bias and tried to apply what I leaned in those workshops systematically. I think many of us who were bilingual SLPs tried to do this. We’d meet together and read the available research (and there was a limited amount so that we could read ALL of it!) Most of the research that I do now focuses on trying to fill these gaps.

There are so many people who have influenced my work and how I think about language, culture, and bilingualism. But, let me acknowledge a couple who were early influences. One book published in 1981 by Joan Erickson and Donald Omark “Communication Assessment of the Bilingual Bicultural Child” was very helpful in providing guidance for assessment. When I looked around to further my studies, Aquiles Iglesias was one of the few people doing research in bilingualism and speech-language pathology. So, in 1989, I started the Ph.D. at Temple with him as my mentor. He pushed me in critically evaluating my ideas and gave me the freedom to try out different things during my studies there.

Research Spotlight:

We invited scholars to describe a recent finding, current study, or recent publication and what makes them excited about it. 

A question that comes up over and over again with respect to bilingual children with language impairment is whether they are even more delayed by dividing their time across two languages. The answer is no. I have a recent study coming out soon (Peña, E.D., Bedore, L.M., Shivabasappa, P. & Niu, L. [in press]. Effects of Divided Input on Bilingual Children with Language Impairment. International Journal of Bilingualism) in which we looked at performance of 100 bilingual children with language impairment compared to 500 typical bilingual children. We examined their performance in Spanish and English relative to ability group and level of exposure to English and Spanish. The gap between children with and without impairment stayed consistent along the entire continuum of exposure in both languages. If bilinguals were more impaired as a result of bilingualism, we would see a larger gap for those who have equal exposure compared to those at the more monolingual end of the continuum and that is simply not the case. I’m excited about this finding because we show that bilingual children with language impairment can be bilingual. Clinically, we need to reassure parents that speaking to their children in the home language will not make language impairment worse. Speaking the home language is a way for families to support their child’s language learning.

Are there any upcoming talks, presentations, or publications we should know about?

A test we worked for 20 years to develop (funded by the NIH), the Bilingual English Spanish Assessment (BESA) is going to be published by Brookes. It was previously published by a small independent publisher, but publishing it with Brookes will help to get it into the hands of clinicians who need good measures.
Also, there’s an upcoming clinical forum on language disorder within variation in Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools. I think the set of papers will be very interesting and informative. We contributed a paper looking at the English performance of Spanish-English bilinguals with and without language impairment.

Reflections on Latino Caucus Experiences:

Finally, we asked about experiences with the SRCD Latino Caucus: Why is the caucus important and/or your views on the role of the Latino Caucus vis-à-vis SRCD, research on child development, policy/practice.

I think that the Latino Caucus brings together a group of people who have specific interest in the Latino population. Relative to the overall membership of SRCD this is a very small group. Yet, Latino children in the U.S. comprise 25% of the child population. The Caucus serves an important function in calling attention to research gaps in the literature concerning Latino children. It serves to bring together researchers who may use diverse research methods and questions who are united in their interest in Latino children and families. An important emphasis for me is that of increasing representation of Latino researchers and researchers with expertise in Latino children and families. It’s important that we have a voice in conducting and validating research and that our voice is heard. The Latino Caucus provides a vehicle for that to happen. Latino children and families should not be mere subjects for research. Yes, the research is important and a lot needs to be done. But, I think that we need to be able to shape the research questions, methods, and use our insights to interpret what results might mean. This week in preparation for a paper we’re writing on non-verbal IQ in bilingual Spanish-English kindergarten age children, I started reading some of the literature on IQ and bilingualism. With morbid fascination I got into some of the literature from the 50s. I was appalled at references to bilingualism as a handicapping condition. Of course, now we would never say (or think) that, but I think that when you look at a problem from only one perspective it is easy to come to the wrong conclusion. In research on non-mainstream populations it is especially important to consider multiple perspective to better understand what is going on. Finally, I think we need a space to encourage and support each other, to mentor new researchers in the field. We are scattered all over the country and all over the world but I think it’s important to not lose sight of the importance of making connections, to talk about common interests and to learn from each other as we work to better understand Latino children, youth and families.

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