Black Children Who Speak African American English Are Routinely Misdiagnosed with Speech Disorders

“Dr. Holt, I need you to come listen to one of my second graders. This is one of my best students, but I’m worried I might be overlooking a speech or language disorder—I’m just not sure,” the teacher asked me. I visited her second-grade classroom and listened to the student say, “The mama bird, she jus’ rub’ her body on the baby in the nes’ ’cause it was col’.”

This child was Black and was using African American English. To many people in the U.S., including many educators and trained speech-language pathologists, the sounds this child produced—such as “jus’” and “nes’”—would seem like they were wrong and might indicate a speech disorder. But these are correctly produced words in African American English. And many children are being improperly diagnosed because people who speak the standard, more “white” variety of American English are not familiar enough with it to understand that African American English is normal and acceptable in children who are developing speech.

As an expert on African American English and a clinically certified speech-language pathologist, I have spent the past 20 years trying to understand the relationship between the use of African American English and language and literacy disorders. When a Black child who speaks African American English is diagnosed with a speech disorder where none exists, it both stigmatizes the child and wastes valuable special education resources. African American English is a valid, dynamic and well-understood language, and educators and speech-language pathologists must become more familiar with it to ensure the dignity and inclusion of these students.

African American English is a distinct, rule-governed language that is used primarily, though not exclusively, by Black Americans of historically African descent. This English is mutually intelligible with standardized American English. The distinctive variations in African American English are because of how legal segregation in the U.S. has persisted, isolating those speakers from standard English and reinforcing the sounds and words that are common to the language.

From the mid-1600s through the mid-1950s, the majority of Black Americans lived separately and often in isolation from their white peers. While it was necessary for Black Americans to communicate effectively with white peers, society’s refusal to allow more integrated housing, or more civic and educational opportunities for Black Americans gave them the opportunity to develop their own persisting language system.

While legal school segregation ended in the 1954, 2020 Census data indicate that racial segregation continues, at least in terms of neighborhood or zip code. In metropolitan areas, white people reside in communities that are, on average, 69 percent white, and Black people reside in communities that are, on average, 58 percent minority (41 percent Black and 17 percent Hispanic). Because children acquire the language of their community, we should expect that most Black children enter kindergarten and first grade using African American English.

As a result of ongoing neighborhood segregation, African American English continues to vary predictably from standardized and local majority English at the level of sound, syllable, word and sentence. Variation at the sound level can occur for vowels so that words such as feel and steel may sound like fill and still. The suffix or gerund -ing might be dropped (jumpin’ instead of jumping), and in some words, the final consonant cluster is reduced (click instead of clicked). A sentence-level example illustrating variation in word order is the African American English sentence “What time it is? compared with the standardized version, “What time is it? Both versions convey the same intent: “Can you share the time?”

Years ago, when that teacher asked me to visit her second-grade classroom, I heard a bright child accurately and correctly following the rules of African American English speech production. The teacher was simply unfamiliar with those rules and unsure of how to proceed in working with them. The teacher and I developed culturally sustaining ways to encourage the student’s love of learning. We discussed praising the student for their correct answer, restating what the student said to make sure the information was accurately received by the teacher and providing instruction on standardized English grammar as simply another version of English that is often used in school. This approach allowed the student to share their ideas in African American English while they were learning standardized English in school—a both/and approach to honoring the everyday language the child used and what they were learning in the classroom.

Additionally, I shared the titles of several age- and grade-appropriate texts written in African American English to the classroom teacher and the school’s librarian. Reading those books aloud during story time brought African American English into the classroom and allowed all the students to recognize its value in language and literacy. These efforts helped the teacher and other school personnel recognize that a difference in speech and language is not a speech-language disorder.

A speech-language disorder is a functional difficulty or impairment in speaking, listening, telling or understanding the language used in the affected person’s community. This includes sign language. To be considered a disorder, the difficulty must have a negative effect on a person’s ability to communicate in daily life. Speech and language disorders can be the result of genetic factors, neurological conditions or traumatic injuries, but sometimes we don’t know why they develop.

A speech-language pathologist is a professional trained to work with people who have communication and swallowing disorders. A speech-language pathologist must understand typical variation in communication, including regional (the use of the words rubber, elastic or rubber band), developmental (pronouncing green frog as gween fwog before age four-and-a-half) and socioethnic variation (rubbed as rub’, which is not an error in African American English).

That being said, speech-language disorders do exist in African American English. Generally child speech-language disorders can be identified starting in the early elementary years (prior to fourth grade). All typically developing American children will know the names of common household and school items and will be able to follow instructions of increasing complexity to name, and to request, and to listen to, and retell an age- or grade-level-appropriate story. The identification of speech-language disorder in an African American English–speaking child is determined by a comparison with other African American English–speaking children, not a comparison with standard American English speakers.

For example, an African American English–speaking child who has trouble consistently following multistep instructions or identifying past or present tense in speaking or listening or has difficulty matching letters to sounds or is unable to accurately repeat a sentence after an adult is likely to be a child with a speech-language disorder.

Thankfully, that was not the case for the second grader I evaluated. After completing a battery of these types of assessments with that student, the team, including the child’s classroom teacher, principal, mom, school psychologist, and reading teacher and me, agreed that the child was typically developing and fluent in African American English, with no evidence of a speech or language disorder.

The profession of speech-language pathology has done an excellent job educating professionals, parents and the public on regional and developmental variation. Now we must continue this work and educate ourselves on socioethnic variation. Many children will enter school speaking African American English. To support their speech-language and literacy development, it is important that children be empowered to use the language form of their home and community.

Speech-language pathologists and educators can use the linguistic research and references provided by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) to learn the rules of African American English in differentiating speech-language variation from speech-language disorder. Working together, those in our society can honor the children speaking African American English as they enter the educational system and accurately identify speech-language disorders. These practices will direct our valuable educational resources to serve both typically developing children and those with speech-language disorders without stigmatizing students who use the valid, dynamic and ever-evolving language that is African American English.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.