How can I tell if a student's language difficulties are because English is his second language or because he has a language disability?

The development of a student's speech is influenced by many factors in his or her life. These factors include the student's socio-economic status, cultural background and home life, the structure of the family, the family's child rearing practices, the region of the country, and the communication styles to which the student is exposed.

Factual Information

As educators, we must be sensitive to whether the child's language problems are due to factors in the child's background or because the child has a language disorder. A student who is learning English as a second language may make language errors that are very similar to those made by students who have a language disorder. These patterns or errors include:

  • Subtractive bilingualism - as a student gains fluency in English, he or she can begin to lose skill in their native language if the continued development of that language is not supported and valued.
  • Code switching - as a child develops proficiency in English, he or she may blend sounds or phrases from their native language into their written or spoken English.
  • Silence - a child who is learning a new language may spend time listening to the new language to ensure they understand the spoken language before they attempt to speak it. For very young children, this period may last up to a year. For older students, this period could last from a few weeks to a few months.
  • Interference or Transfer - children may make errors in English as they transfer knowledge of their native language to English.

Classroom Activities

  • If your district allows home visits and if the parents or guardians are willing, consider visiting the student's parents/guardians in their home to learn about the language(s) spoken in the home.
  • If your district does not permit home visits, consider inviting the child's parents or guardians to a conference at school so that you might learn more about the languages spoken in the child's home and the child's cultural background.
  • Reflect on the child's behavior in light of cultural values, prior experiences and the child's personality. Does the child's home culture encourage open verbal expression or reticence? Is the child shy on the playground or only quiet in academic situations?


Discuss your concerns about the student with the special educator and/or speech and language pathologist who works with students at your school.