We envision this issue as a tool for illuminating new directions in the language assessment of young children learning African American English (AAE) as a first dialect when a language disorder is suspected. Many of the initial investigations of AAE focused on discrediting its portrayal as a deficient version of General American English (GAE) dialect, also known as Mainstream American English, and providing empirical evidence to show that AAE is one of many different oral varieties of English. Early research advanced the “language difference” position by providing the necessary descriptive information about its grammatical, lexical, phonological, and discourse features. Prior to these initial studies, AAE-speaking children were at a greater risk for a misdiagnosis of language impairment. To date, outstanding progress has been made in the fair assessment of AAE speakers, most notably in the form of the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation tests (Seymour, Roeper, & de Villiers, 2003, 2005). However, much research remains to be done in the area of differential diagnosis.
African American English is a complex variety of English that is sometimes reduced to a list of morphosyntactic and phonological features, and some unique lexical entries (Rickford, 1999). These features are often used to distinguish this variety of English for the purpose of assessment— for example, an African American child may be given credit on a test item if he or she uses acceptable AAE features instead of the target GAE features. There are several major concerns with this strategy: (1) Not all African Americans are AAE speakers; therefore, giving credit for AAE responses would be inappropriate for a non-AAE speaker and the child may in fact have a language impairment. (2) If the child is an AAE speaker, the clinician must be able to distinguish when the child is using an AAE feature in accordance with the rules of the dialect. Knowing that a child uses an AAE feature does not give the clinician any information about how proficient the child is in using that feature—that is, the child may not have an underlying knowledge of the “system” of a particular feature that is typical of other young AAE speakers. It is important to stress that AAE speakers know a “system of sounds, word and sentence structure, meaning and structural organization of vocabulary items, as well as other information” (Green, 2002, p. 1). Until speech–language pathologists have a broad understanding of this variety, young AAE speakers will continue to be at risk for over- and underidentification.
These readings are essential for expanding the knowledge base of practitioners and for beginning a new dialogue about the properties of AAE within a normal variation, differential assessment, and intervention paradigm. The contributing authors are creating new pathways for understanding (1) normal variations within AAE language development, (2) how AAE use may impact children in the academic setting, and (3) how individuals who speak AAE and may have a language disorder can be assessed with the least amount of bias so that evidence-based intervention can be provided, if needed.
The first article by Johnson, “Fast Mapping Verb Meaning From Argument Structure,” demonstrates that AAE- and GAE-speaking children performed similarly on a task designed to assess children's fast mapping skills. Both groups were required to fast map novel verbs in four different argument structures. Results showed that the groups were equivalent in applying syntactic cues to modify the meaning of novel verbs.
The second article authored by Terry, Jackson, Evangelou, and Smith, titled “Expressive and Receptive Language Effects of African American English on a Sentence Imitation Task,” uses a sentence imitation task from the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals—Third Edition (CELF-3) to determine whether the use of third person singular, which is contrastive between AAE and GAE, affected scores on the CELF-3 when scoring reflected the linguistic differences of AAE speakers. Results showed that morphosyntactic differences between AAE and GAE have measurable effects on tests of sentence recall, given that linguistic differences affect receptive and expressive performance.
The third article by Jackson and Pearson, “Variable Use of Features Associated With African American English by Typically Developing Children,” shows that zero marking of grammatical features by AAE speakers is not an indicator of language impairment in and of itself; however, a “high” zero-marking profile by AAE speakers after the age of 8 should not be expected and exclusive zero-marking after 8–9 years of age may be an indicator of language impairment for these children.
The fourth article, “A Preliminary Investigation of Second- and Fourth-Grade African American Students Performance on the Gray Oral Reading Test—Fourth Edition,” is by Champion, Rosa-Lugo, Rivers, and McCabe. This study was conducted to determine whether the Gray Oral Reading Test—Fourth Edition (GORT-4) is appropriate to measure the oral reading skills of AAE-speaking children in the second and fourth grades. Their findings showed that the African American GAE speakers appeared to have a linguistic advantage when administered the GORT-4 because they achieved overall higher scores than African American AAE speakers.
The final article, “Family History of Speech and Language Impairment in African American Children: Implications for Assessment,” by Pruitt, Garrity, and Oetting explores the family history of African American participants from low- and middle-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds to determine whether children with language impairment were more likely to have relatives with similar language profiles and whether profiles varied as a result of SES. The findings indicated that African American children from low-SES backgrounds were twice as likely to have a positive family history of language impairment. Furthermore, African American children with speech and language impairment were also twice as likely to have a positive family history when SES effects were controlled. Although preliminary, these results are consistent with family history studies and the authors suggest that a positive family history of impairment should be considered an important risk factor when conducting childhood speech and language assessments.
This issue of Topics in Language Disorders presents reports of new research on AAE with implications for assessment and offers a fresh look at a 40-year-old topic. Thanks to the early fundamental research on AAE, the authors in this issue, as well as other investigators with similar interests, are able to presume AAE's legitimacy as a variety of the English language and provide new information that helps to clarify when children learning AAE as a first dialect may have a language disorder.
—Frances A. Burns, PhD, Issue Co-Editor
—Gloria T. Weddington, PhD, Issue Co-Editor
Assistant Professor, Communication Disorders, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (Burns)
Professor, Communicative Disorders & Sciences San Jose State University San Jose, CA (Weddington)
Green, L. J. (2002). African American English: A linguistic introduction
. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rickford, J. R. (1999). African American vernacular English.
Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Seymour, H. N., Roeper, T., & de Villiers, J. G. (2003). Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation— Screening Test
). San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
Seymour, H. N., Roeper, T., & de Villiers, J. G. (2005). Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation— Norm Referenced
). San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.