Bilingual Graduate Programs: What Students Should Know and How They Can Prepare

by Raquel Anderson on January 1, 2010

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Raquel Anderson, Ph.D. CCC-SLP. Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist, Bloomington, IN

Raquel Anderson is an associate professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington Campus. She teaches and conducts research in the areas of child language disorders, with a special on child second language acquisition. In particular, she studies children with language learning deficits who are Spanish-speaking and in an English language immersion context. Her research aims at describing how different language learners are impacted by sociolinguistic environment. Because of the difficulty in identifying language disability in second language learners, her research focuses on identifying potential clinical markers of language learning deficits in second language learners.

Dr. Anderson has been the recipient of various grants, including a research grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the grammatical skills of Spanish-speaking children in monolingual and bilingual environments with a diagnosis of specific language impairment (SLI). She has presented locally, nationally, and internationally in the areas of child language learning disorders, second language acquisition and communication assessment of diverse children. She has published extensively in the area of child language and second language acquisition in children with and without language impairment.

She most recently received a training grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, Department of Education to implement a clinical graduate training program focused on working with Latino children and their families (Speech Therapy Education, Practicum and Services for Latino Children and Families – STEPS). Dr. Anderson also coordinates the Training in Research and Academic Careers in Communication Sciences (TRACCS), a summer research program aimed at increasing the number of individuals from underrepresented groups pursuing academic and research careers in communication disorders.

¡Feliz año Nuevo 2010! Welcome to the first blog of the year. The purpose of this blog is to provide practical information to individuals who are considering a profession as speech-language pathologists (SLP) with an emphasis on working with the growing culturally and linguistically diverse population in the United States. As most of us who work with individuals from diverse backgrounds, fluency in a language other than English, although important, is not sufficient preparation for serving individuals from diverse groups. Background knowledge in a variety of areas that are unfortunately not presented in detail within the typical graduate curriculum in SLP is needed. This includes coursework that covers in depth bilingual language development and disorders, alternative assessment methods, cultural differences and their impact in service provision, working with diverse families, and language development, use and disorders particular to the target language. In addition, clinical experiences embedded within the graduate program where students, under the guidance of a supervisor with the needed linguistic and experiential/academic preparation, work directly with families from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds is also important.

While all ASHA certified graduate programs in speech language pathology will provide you with a solid foundation in the field, they will not necessarily provide you with the specialized academic background and clinical experiences in the area of bilingualism/diversity and clinical practice. ASHA does require that topics pertaining to diversity and clinical practice be embedded within the curriculum, but often, these are not discussed with the necessary depth for students to develop a strong and specialized knowledge base in the area. In addition, although certainly opportunities for working with clients from diverse populations exist in many programs, few have specially trained supervisors as well as specific requirements for completing clinical hours with individuals with communication disorders who are bilingual or English Language Learners (ELL). If your professional goal is to work as a bilingual SLP, you should consider attending a program with an established track for students interested in working with linguistically diverse groups. In this blog, I will give you tips and strategies to follow while researching potential graduate programs as these pertain to working with diverse groups and for preparing students to work as bilingual speech language pathologists.

Step #1: Identify potential graduate programs
First and foremost, you should conduct research to identify graduate programs that can potentially provide you with the academic and clinical training necessary for becoming a bilingual SLP. There are two types of programs that I recommend students to look into: (1) specialized programs, and (2) programs with faculty who conduct research in the area of bilingualism/second language acquisition. A listing of multicultural/bilingual emphasis programs is available through ASHA’s website (website address: http://www.asha.org/practice/multicultural/opportunities/hbi.htm). Although no specific information on each of the programs is provided, it is a good starting point. The listing gives students the name of the program and the university that runs it. Students can then visit the department’s website to get more information on the program and its requirements for admission, as well as contact information. The departments’ websites can also provide information as to student funding. I recommend that these programs be students’ first choices as they consider where to apply to graduate school. This is because established programs have already in place coursework and clinical experiences relevant to working with culturally and linguistically diverse groups.

A second option for students is to research the faculty employed in the department. Sometimes, as undergraduates, you have read articles in the area of linguistic and cultural diversity by researchers in the field. These researchers are not necessarily employed in speech-hearing sciences departments with an established bilingual emphasis program. Nevertheless, they are experts in the area and may have developed coursework with a focus on diversity issues. In addition, if they have a strong research program, students may benefit from working with the faculty as research assistants. Make a list of the researchers that you have read and whose area of expertise meshes with your interests and identify their home institutions. You can obtain their contact information and you can ask them directly about the graduate program in their department and potential opportunities for a student interested in becoming a bilingual SLP.

Step #2: Obtain as much information as possible about each program you have identified.
As I mentioned before, research thoroughly each program that interests you. You should get information concerning the following: (1) specialized coursework, (2) clinical experiences, (3) pre-requisites for admission to the program (e.g., undergraduate degree, language proficiency), and (4) funding opportunities available. As a first step, visit the departments’ website. As a second step, contact the program director (or the faculty member with expertise in the area) to get more information about the program. My advice is that when you contact the faculty member, you have already read all that is available about the program and that your specific questions have not already been answered on the website. Even if you do not have any questions, it is always a good idea to contact the faculty member, as it shows that you are interested in the program and in his/her work.

Step #3: Arrange to visit the schools/programs that interest you
Although this may be difficult, if you have the opportunity, visit those programs that interest you the most. In this way, you can get a first hand “feel” for the program. You may be able to observe some clinical interventions and/or sit in classes that interest you. You can also talk to students in the program and get their perspectives. If you cannot visit, I recommend that if possible, you get a chance to contact students enrolled in the program. Often, these students are more than willing to exchange e-mails with you. You can ask the faculty member in charge of the program for their e-mails. Of course, faculty can only give you this information with student approval, but it is always good to ask.

Step #4: Apply to the programs
Once you have identified the programs that are a good fit for you, APPLY! I strongly recommend that you give the admissions committee as much information about yourself and your interest in bilingual SLP. In the essay that is required in your application write about your experiences and interest in bilingualism. This includes your language proficiency, your interactions with the target population, and the reasons for applying specifically to their program. In addition, try to secure a letter of recommendation with someone, preferably a faculty member, who can attest to your interest and commitment to working as a bilingual SLP.

As you continue to work towards your professional goals, I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunity to work with the language group that interests you and to further your own language skills. A good way to learn more about the target population is to work directly with community organizations and agencies. Try to find these organizations in your area. They are always happy to have individuals volunteer their time. These experiences will aid you in developing a better understanding of the community, its history and its needs. You can also take courses in other departments (e.g., Anthropology, Linguistics, Latino Studies, Sociology, Education) that will enhance your knowledge about the target population. In addition, keep up with the language. You should practice speaking with native speakers on a regular basis. Other ways for developing skills in the target language include listening to music, watching movies/TV, language, and reading newspapers/magazines/books in the language.

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