Language Barrier, Native American Dropout, Suicide

Article ID: 16462

Released: 2-Dec-1999 12:00 AM EST

Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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Edgarita Long, assistant professor of communications disorders
Allison Hogge, science and research communications officer


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - One of the first obstacles the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony faced before sitting down to the first Thanksgiving was the language barrier between themselves and their guests, the Wampanoag Indians.

Three centuries later, a University of Arkansas professor's research indicates that a language barrier may still exist between American Indians and whites - even when both speak English. Further, this lapse of communication may contribute to high dropout rates and the prevalence of suicide among American Indian youths.

"From the test results, it's obvious that American Indian children use language differently than their white peers. But until now, little has been done to assess the ways in which they differ or the extent to which each successfully communicates," said Dr. Edgarita Long, assistant professor of communication disorders.

Working through Head Start programs in Tahlequah, Okla., Long has tested and observed more than 400 white and Cherokee Indian children. She has published results from her study in several periodicals, including The Journal of Children's Communications Skills. On Sunday, Nov. 21, Long presented her research to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association at their national conference in San Francisco.

Over the past five years, Long has focused her study on three, four and five-year-old children who share a classroom and who speak English as their only language. The fact that these children share the same language as well as an integrated peer group implies that any differences in communication can be traced back to difference in culture.

To assess each child, Long used standard communication tests that led the child through four tasks, each requiring a slightly different use of language. The stages of the test included talking to a teacher, holding a conversation with a puppet, speaking on the telephone and completing a problem-solving task.

"Compared to the Caucasian students, Cherokee children used briefer statements and employed more non-verbal communication techniques such as gestures and body language," said Long. "Both groups successfully communicated their wants and needs, but they used very different methods to do so."

In another standard test, Long found that Cherokee children scored extremely high on their use of receptive language - the ability to understand and interpret what other people want, to follow directions and to perform specific tasks. However, the test showed markedly low scores on their use of expressive language - the ability to communicate what they know to other people.

While different methods of communication are understood and accepted in practical life, problems arise when schoolchildren take the standardized tests that assess language performance. Such tests focus on the child's use of verbal language without distinguishing or accounting for other forms of communication. Therefore, children who use more non-verbal language receive low scores, which can lead them to be misdiagnosed with a communication disorder.

According to Long, this oversight in standard testing methods has sentenced a disproportionate number of American Indian children to years of speech therapy and special education programs.

The results of their misdiagnosis may seriously impact the course of their lives. Both suicide and dropout rates are unusually high in American Indian communities, and Long believes one of the contributors may be the way these children are treated during their early education.

"Despite the fact that they have no difficulty communicating, these children get labeled as language disabled at a very young age," said Long. "For the rest of their education, they are separated from their classmates, treated differently by teachers and peers and led to believe that something is wrong with them."

Rather than subject another child to misdiagnosis, Long suggests that testing methods be reevaluated and altered to more accurately account for cultural differences. This may mean that American Indian children take a different test version than the one administered to white children. Such a precedent has already been set with different tests for children from different economic backgrounds, said Long.

"We need to determine the normal parameters of language use among American Indians and design the test around that," Long explained.

In addition, Long hopes new testing methods will consider cultural differences when formatting questions.

For example, the Cherokee children in Long's study scored lowest on the telephone task. Long attributes this result to the fact that Cherokee culture values silence and listening skills above talking. They also consider personal contact preferable to telephone conversations. For this reason, many American Indian families do not even own telephones, said Long.

As people become more aware and more appreciative of cultural differences, it becomes apparent that standardized evaluations can lead to racial discrimination and result in serious consequences for those who do not fit into mainstream patterns.

"If changing a single test can improve the educational process for an entire group of people, there's no reason we shouldn't pursue it," said Long. "There are better ways to help these children than separating them from their class and peers."

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