Talk the Talk: How do Speech-Language Therapists work in International Schools and Multilingual Settings?
Speech therapists play a crucial role in facilitating effective communication and language development. Their expertise helps children overcome speech and language challenges, enabling them to express themselves and engage more fully in various aspects of life.
But when it comes to international school children exposed to multiple languages, how does speech and language support work?
Linden has collaborated with hundreds of children internationally, providing comprehensive speech and language support and assessments. To gain insights into the significance of speech-language support, we interviewed Abigail Harrington, a brilliant Speech-Language Specialist at Linden Global Learning in Berlin. Abigail shared her valuable insights about when and how she contributes to language growth, highlighting her role in addressing communication barriers, understanding multilingual development, building confidence, and fostering independence.
Interviewer: Clara, Linden Client Services Coordinator
Interviewee: Abigail Harrington - Speech Language Therapist
Clara: To begin, could you provide a brief overview of the role of a speech therapist?
Abigail: Certainly! A speech-language therapist, also sometimes known as a speech-language pathologist, primarily works with individuals who are dealing with a variety of speech, language, feeding, and swallowing challenges. The main goal of therapy is to help clients improve their ability to communicate effectively and safely consume which, in turn, enhances their overall quality of life and level of independence.
The main goal of therapy is to help clients improve their ability to communicate effectively and safely consume which, in turn, enhances their overall quality of life and level of independence.
Clara: Could you elaborate on the diverse client base that you work with?
Abigail: Of course. While SLTs can work with people across the lifespan, my focus is entirely on children. I work with kids who need support with language development, articulation skills (producing sounds correctly), and social communication. I take a multimodal communication approach in my practice, meaning I accept all forms of communication whether it be body language, signs/gestures, spoken language, written language or using a speech-generating device. Furthermore, almost all of my Linden clients are growing up in multilingual environments. So, I am always taking into consideration how to best support students who are exposed to multiple languages and are presenting with communication disorders or differences. It is my top priority to ensure the children I work with become strong and confident communicators in all areas of their lives.
Clara: How does a parent/caregiver or teacher know if a child needs speech-language therapy? Some might wonder if a child's speech and language challenges are within the normal range for their age - especially multilingual children!
Abigail: It's natural for parents to have concerns about their child's speech and language development. As a speech-language therapist, I can offer a comprehensive assessment of a child's communication skills. During this assessment, I evaluate their speech sounds, language comprehension, expressive language, social communication, and other relevant aspects of communication. An evaluation helps determine if a child's challenges fall within the typical range for their age or if they could benefit from speech-language therapy.
If I find that a child's speech or language development is lagging behind or if they're experiencing difficulties that could affect their communication, I provide clear guidance on the best course of action. Whether it's a minor delay that might resolve with a bit of intervention or an area where targeted therapy could make a significant difference, speech-language therapists can assist caregivers in making informed decisions to effectively support their child’s communication needs. Open communication and early intervention are key factors in ensuring your child's speech and language skills develop optimally.
Regardless of whether the child is monolingual or multilingual, if the child is meeting early speech-language developmental milestones at a delayed or atypical rate (especially in the home languages), this is often a sign of an underlying communication disorder. Additionally, if a parent finds their child does not have at least one language that they can successfully understand and use, it’s time to reach out to a speech-language therapist. I always remind caregivers that their child must have a strong foundational language(s), or home language(s), in order to develop communication skills across multiple languages. So no matter where in the world you may be, it is always best to continue to speak the language you feel most comfortable using with your child!
So no matter where in the world you may be, it is always best to continue to speak the language you feel most comfortable using with your child!
Clara: How do you approach addressing the unique needs of each client?:
Abigail: Each child I work with is unique, so I start by building rapport with the child and conducting assessments. Based on my observations and assessments, I create individualized treatment plans that highlight their strengths and target areas that need support. These plans could involve activities to help them accurately articulate difficult sounds, improve their phonological awareness, enhance language development, and support communication with others across various contexts.
When working with multilingual children, it is essential that we obtain a thorough language history. We achieve this by reviewing their developmental milestones in each language when possible and interviewing caregivers who speak different languages. Our goal is to gather as much information as possible about the child's communication skills in each language. Once we have an overview of the child's abilities, we identify where any breakdown in communication is occurring and develop a tailored plan to support the child in the appropriate language(s).
Clara: Can you give us an example of what a session might be like for a child who is having trouble pronouncing certain sounds, for example?
Abigail: Absolutely. Let's say I’m working with a child who struggles to pronounce the "r" sound. In our sessions, we would start by practicing this sound in a playful and interactive way. I might use visual aids like pictures or mirrors to help them see how their mouth moves when making the sound. I encourage the child to repeat the sound and words after me, to achieve accuracy and clarity.
We could play games that incorporate words containing the "r" sound or incorporate the child’s interests into practice to make it fun.
Outside of the session, I might suggest some exercises or activities that the child and their caregivers can practice together. This could involve saying words with the "r" sound in different contexts or using playful activities to reinforce the learning.
Over time, as the child becomes more comfortable and confident with the "r" sound, we celebrate their progress and move on to more complex challenges. The ultimate goal is for the child to generalize their gained skills so they can correctly produce the sound in everyday life outside of the therapy room!. It is so important for the child to feel like they can successfully express themselves.
If a child is multilingual and demonstrates difficulties articulating sounds across multiple languages it is important that they receive support in each language as speech sounds vary across languages! In some cases, the caregiver can take an active role in the therapy process by practicing at home with their child in their preferred language.
Clara: Have you worked with multilingual children and found that skills developed in English Speech Therapy sessions can be transferred to their other languages that are spoken at home or in the community?
Abigail: This can absolutely be the case especially, when the caregivers are on board with the process and can carry-over the strategies and activities I offer for building speech and language skills at home. When taking a team approach and collaborating with the family and/or teachers, I often see substantial progress for the children I work with.
Clara: It sounds like incredibly meaningful work. What qualities do you believe are important for a speech therapist to possess?
Abigail: Empathy and effective listening skills help me truly connect with my clients and their support systems. I feel I must have a strong and trusting relationship with my clients in order to best support them. Staying curious is also important. I’m a life-long learner- I am always researching the latest approaches and techniques in the field. In my current position I am constantly learning about languages and cultures that may be different from my own. Remaining open and learning from the families I work with is essential for providing thoughtful and appropriate services. Lastly, being silly and creative during sessions is the best way to foster joyful and meaningful learning experiences.
Clara: Are there any misconceptions about your profession that you'd like to clarify?
Abigail: A common misconception is that speech-language specialists only work with children who struggle with pronouncing sounds or children who stutter when they speak. In reality, our work covers a wide range of communication challenges that children might face, including difficulties with language, social communication, and more.
Clara: Is there an ideal age to start speech-language therapy?
Abigail: The best age for starting speech-language therapy can vary based on the individual child's needs. Generally, if you have concerns about your child's speech or language development, it's a good idea to seek a consultation or assessment sooner rather than later. Early intervention can be very beneficial, as younger children's brains are more adaptable and open to learning new skills. The wait and see approach is something I typically do not recommend. The sooner we can give children the skills and tools needed to be effective and confident communicators, the better!
That being said, there's no specific age that's considered "too early" or "too late" for speech therapy. I work with children of different ages, from 2-year-olds to school-age kids. If a child is having communication difficulties at any age, I can assess their skills and determine the most appropriate course of action.
Clara: Could you share one success story from your experience?
Abigail: I have so many fond stories about my clients but one of my favorite things to hear from the families that I work with is that a child is now able to successfully and confidently communicate with teachers, friends, and family members, who may not have fully understood them before. It’s always best when a caregiver says something like “Grandma said she can understand xx so much better now!” I think it’s such a beautiful thing when improved communication helps strengthen relationships with others!
Download Abigails Language Learning Tips for Caregivers:
About the author Abigail is a Linden speech-language therapist from New York, holding a certificate of clinical competence from The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). She completed her bachelor's degree in Speech-Language Pathology at Ithaca College and earned a master’s degree in Communicative Sciences & Disorders from New York University.
Abigail has experience working with a pediatric population (ages 2-12 years) across various settings, including daycares & preschools, sensory gyms, and private schools. Additionally, she provides services to children via teletherapy.
Abigail specializes in early intervention, receptive & expressive language delays and disorders, social communication disorders, speech sound disorders (articulation and phonological disorders), and fluency disorders.