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Auburn speech-language pathology expert discusses cultural responsiveness in testing

Assistant professor Megan-Brette Hamilton on The Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know graphic

Who you are, where you’re from, and how you were raised all affect the way you communicate. Megan-Brette Hamilton, an assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences in the College of Liberal Arts, explains how to embrace the different ways we all speak the same language.



What are the “flavors” of language?

If you think of flavors of ice cream, it's easy to wrap your head around it. There's no hierarchy to ice cream flavors. When I talk about different flavors of English, I'm really talking about all of the different ways that we speak the same language. And if you want to be more formal, linguists call this “dialect” or “language variations.” And they're all dialects, they're all language variations. There isn’t one “right” way to speak English.

You center a lot of your work around cultural humility and cultural competence. How does that play into this discussion of how different people speak?

Cultural competence refers to the skillset to provide culturally responsive practices to your clients: awareness, knowledge, and attitude. Those are some of the components we always talk about for cultural competence. Having that skillset allows you to accurately assess, diagnose, and treat, and have a positive relationship with clients who are from a different background than yourself. It’s not a destination. It’s a journey and nothing’s wrong with trying to stay on that journey.

The cultural humility part doesn’t replace cultural competence—I think it's actually the predecessor. Cultural humility is that internal work that you do as a person. And you need to do that inner work, and you need to start realizing what is it that made me think X, Y and Z about this group of people or X, Y and Z about this concept.

There are several tests that speech-language pathologists use to diagnose speech and language issues, particularly in children. What can we do to improve those tests?

There’s tons of research to show that there’s a lot of cultural bias within standardized tests and the same thing happens within the speech-language pathology field. Perhaps we need to make sure that when we’re looking at the test, we see how culturally responsive the test is or not. We have these standardized tests, and we want to use them, but they’re not always the most culturally responsive tests. And one of the ways to do a better job at that is to have different people at the table when the tests are being designed.

How are identity and speech interrelated? How can we be cognizant of those things?

No matter how you speak, if you like the way you speak, if you don't like the way you speak, it is a part of your identity. It's part of who you are, and it's part of how you walk in this world. It's part of how you communicate in this world, no matter what dialect it is.

Oftentimes, you'll get very well-meaning speech-language pathologists and teachers who will want to "correct" this child. The problem with that is, if you feel like you're doing a benefit to this child by saying that, you're actually attacking a part of their identity. Because not only is that the way they say it, but it's the way they've learned to say it through their own community. That is the identity piece. It's a cultural-linguistic identity piece, and it's a very important part. And we sometimes forget about that when we work with children in the classroom.

What would you tell a teacher or a speech-language pathologist who wants to begin making a difference in the spaces they’re in each day?

The first step is really to take a step back and not look at what's missing, look at what's there and how rich it already is. Become aware that all the kids in front of you have their own lived experiences. And more than likely, if you're working with someone who doesn't look or sound like you and has a different cultural-linguistic background than you, then you may not be aware of what their cultural norms, traditions, or values are. Get to know that so you don't think it's wrong and start to recognize it's just different. Start to recognize cultural-linguistic differences as just that: differences.

About Megan-Brette Hamilton:

Megan-Brette Hamilton is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist. Her research centers on the classroom experiences of African American English-speaking children and speakers of other dialects. Hamilton has presented her work nationally and internationally; consulted with teachers, librarians, and speech-language pathologists; and maintains a blog dedicated to increasing understanding of cultural-linguistic diversity.

Tags: Speech Language and Hearing Sciences

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