Difference or Disorder

There have been several questions in speech-language pathology facebook groups about how to determine if a Black student’s speech sound pattern or non-standard grammatical features are due to a dialect or a disorder.


Many times, it is assumed that the Black child is speaking “African American Vernacular English” also known as AAVE (or previously, Ebonics).


I believe part of the confusion comes from the name of this “dialect.”


Though the term “African-American” appears in the title (and the ebon- in “ebonics” means black), not all African-Americans speak with features associated with this dialect.  Some African-Americans may have non-standard pronunciation of words, but speak with Standard American English grammar.  Others, do not have any features of this dialect and speak with both pronunciation and grammatical structures consistent with Standard American English (SAE).


Conversely, there are members of other ethnic groups that DO speak with features considered to be elements AAVE.  Dialects are acquired based on the people you’re around and how they speak.  The term “African-American Vernacular English” – and some other ethnically associated names for dialects – are really misnomers.


Dialects are transient, transferrable, and ever-transforming. They can be passed from person to person and moved around as people migrate. They also change over time due to the influences of other people, dialects, languages, and perceptions of social status.


It is WRONG to assume that anyone speaks or knows a particular language or dialect because of their appearance or race.



So then – here we are at our critical question:

How can we tell if someone’s speech and language pattern represents a difference or a disorder?


The answer is really quite simple.  We have to INVESTIGATE (this SLP’s favorite word)!



One MUST speak with the person’s family members and analyze their communication patterns.  When determining difference vs. disorder in children, it is especially important to not only consider the child’s parents, but also the child’s primary caregivers!


Does the child spend much time with Mom, Dad, Grandparents, Nanny, or another caregiver?


Children may speak a different dialect than their parents or speak with the influences of another language or dialect if they spend a significant amount of time with a caregiver from a different linguistic background.



Take for instance this real-life example:

  • A student is referred to the Speech-Language Pathologist due to concerns with his grammar and pronunciation.
  • Phenotypically, the student appears Mexican.
  • However, the SLP does not take this at face value.
  • She investigates and discovers that the student’s father (with whom he has little to no contact) is Mexican.
  • The student’s mother is Asian.
  • The student lives with his mother and grandparents.
  • Upon calling the home, the SLP notes that the grandparents speak Asian-Influenced English.
  • However, when the SLP speaks to the student’s mother, she hears a different dialect.
  • The SLP decides to investigate further.
  • The mother indicates that she was born and raised in Jamaica.
  • The mother speaks Jamaican patois.
  • The SLP compares the student’s speech/language pattern to Spanish-influenced English – Not a match.
  • The SLP compares the student’s speech/language pattern to Asian-influenced English – Not a match.
  • The SLP compares the student’s speech/language pattern to features of Jamaican Patois – We have a match!
  • The SLP would have been wrong to assume that because the child looked Mexican or was also of Asian decent, that he spoke a dialect associated with those ethnicities.
  • The SLP was right to INVESTIGATE.


When trying to determine if features of spoken communication constitute a difference or a disorder, it is imperative to speak to the family and caregivers.  Ask questions AND covertly analyze their own speaking patterns.  You might even hear differences that are not even be associated with a documented dialect but are consistent within that family.


The job of a school-based speech-language pathologist is to treat disorders, not differences.  Some parents may want the SLP to work on features of a dialect because the dialect is not highly valued in society.  However, that is not the role of an SLP.


We are therapists, not teachers or tutors.


We must stick with our code of ethics.  We must make it a priority to distinguish between differences and disorders so that we only treat those who are appropriate for therapy.



As one final closing example, if Sasha Obama (daughter of the President of the United States of America) was using non-standard grammar or pronunciation, would you assume it was a dialectal issue or investigate it as a possible disorder?


Remember, ethnic groups (like all human groups) are not homogenous.



Questions to ask when you interview the parents include:

  • Do you have any concerns about your child’s speech?
  • Do you have concerns about your child’s understanding of language?
  • Do you have concerns about the way your child uses language to express him/herself?
  • Do you speak any other languages?
  • Who takes care of the child when you’re not available?
  • Does the caregiver speak any other languages?
  • Who looked after the child in the past?
  • Where do you and your child go for fun (e.g., movies, park, museum, theater, etc.)? This question gets at life experiences.
  • Do your family and friends have any difficulty understanding your child?
  • (While the parent responds, note any non-standard structures in his/her speech and language)



Autumn Bryant, M.A. CCC-SLP/L

Speech-Language Pathologist

May 10, 2014

Children can also pick up speaking patterns from each other!

Children can also pick up speaking patterns from each other!