Speak•a•boo: The future of accessible speech assessment in a multilingual world (Spotlight on Good Practice Series)

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Every once in a while I come across something that warms the cockles of my heart and delights me professionally at the same time. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of living one of those personal/professional moments. Several years ago I met Mirjam Blumenthal, a speech and language pathologist (SLP) from Koninklijke Kentalis, which is an organisation dedicated to diagnosis and therapy for speech and language here in the Netherlands. I don’t have proof, but at 225 years old, I would suspect it is one of the oldest of its type in the world. Mirjam and I met at an EU conference on Early Language Learning (Poliglotti4eu) where we were both speaking about our respective specialisations. I was extremely impressed with her depth of knowledge about and dedication to working with multilingual children in the area of speech and language diagnosis and therapy. I have found over the years that far too few speech and language pathologists have training in working with young bilinguals, and this often leads to inaccurate diagnoses due to misunderstandings about bilingual development. Over the years I’ve referred many, many families to Kentalis, knowing that they will have a safe welcome and get appropriate support, regardless of the home language of their child.

One of the complicated and enduring issues for speech assessment with young children is that the assessment needs to happen not just in the school language, but also in their own language to have any validity. So if the family speaks a language at home that is not represented in the SLP community, getting an accurate assessment of speech development can be next to impossible. In a master stroke of innovation in the field, Kentalis has created a speech assessment app that can be used by an SLP who does not speak the child’s language, with the support of a formal or informal interpreter, possibly a parent/caregiver. There are currently eight languages available in the Speak·a·boo app (Dutch, Turkish, Polish, Somali, Tarifit, Egyptian, Moroccan, & Papiamento). Each speech assessment was developed with the expertise of at least one SLP who speaks the target language, and through community surveys. The assessment consists of 27-36 words (depending on the language) that contain within them the consonants of the language, so each word needs to be carefully chosen and vetted to ensure the speech sounds would be consistent across the greater community (ruling out words with multiple versions and pronunciations). The breadth of the task is enormous, but the end result is nothing short of amazing. The simple, interactive app allows the child to participate in a game-like activity, which elicits the words naturally. The native-speaker support person simply inputs if the child pronounced the word accurately or not. After the test the support person and SLP verify accuracy together by playing back the separately recorded words, and comparing them to the pre-recorded target words. The SLP puts the result on a printed score form and makes a report.   Over my many years of working with bilingual families, one of the most heart-wrenching things I deal with is parents feeling that they have somehow damaged or done a disservice to their child by using their own language with them. This is especially common when a child has speech issues, and parents believe (or are told) that it is because they don’t use the right language with their child. Speak·a·boo does two things. Firstly, it helps families get clear and early answers about their child’s speech development, in their own language (the eight current languages will be added to as staff and funding permit). Secondly, and more importantly, the availability of speech assessment in their own language sends a powerful message to families: that their language has value, and is valued, enough to bring it into the clinical assessment process. The native-speaker is key to the process and is supported by the professional, and this ruptures the often common power-imbalance between majority language medical professionals and immigrant/minority language parents. The dedication that Kentalis has shown in dedicating so much time and energy to developing this approach has provided the rest of the world with a fantastic resource for working more ethically with minority-language speaking children.

Speak·a·boo is available for download on the iTunes store, for iPad (2017).

An article on the Kentalis website can be found by clicking on their logo below.

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