In the United States, more than 20 percent of individuals are bilingual, and the majority of the global population is bilingual. Despite this large group of individuals who speak more than one language, there is little clinical research about how to treat bilingual or multilingual individuals who have speech and language disorders.
Vishnu KK Nair
This was particularly noticeable for Vishnu KK Nair while he worked as a speech-language pathologist in India. Nair, who is joining the faculty of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders as an assistant professor this fall, struggled to find evidence-based clinical treatments for his bilingual patients.
“When you grow up in India, bi/multilingualism is a lived experience,” Nair said. “During my clinical training, I saw a lot of children and adults from bilingual populations. I was using my best judgment in assessing and providing treatment and services, but I didn’t have access to research. That’s part of the reason I became interested in bilingualism.”
From a young age, Nair was interested in culture and languages. He remembers watching his father writing beautiful poetry in Malayalam, Nair’s native language.
“He could immediately switch between the colloquial and the literal language at ease,” Nair said. “I was somewhat fascinated by his skillful mastery in languages. However, it wasn’t until my clinical training I started consciously thinking about it.”
Once he had discovered the need for more research in the field, Nair decided to immerse himself in the theoretical aspects of bilingualism by pursuing his doctorate from the ARC Center for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. There, he studied the effects of bilingualism on cognition and language learning.
For his dissertation, Nair investigated the popular notion that bilingual and multilingual individuals have an advantage over monolingual individuals in cognitive functions like inhibitory control and selective attention. Though some studies support this claim, not all studies replicate this finding.
“This is a very controversial area,” Nair said. “The bilinguals in many studies were immigrants in the United States and Canada who had a higher socioeconomic status and more education than monolinguals because of strict immigration laws. SES is a big contributor to cognitive abilities, which means that the bilingual advantage could be attributed to socioeconomic status and not the actual effects of bilingualism.”
In order to better understand the effects of bilingualism, Nair studied a low-SES, illiterate population in India comprised of both monolingual and bilingual individuals. Since all of the individuals were from a socially disadvantaged population, bilingualism may have been one of the few positive life experiences that could impact their cognitive ability.
“I did not find a particular bilingual advantage for inhibitory control but an overall cognitive processing advantage – the literature at that time termed this as a ‘bilingual executive processing advantage’ – meaning bilinguals demonstrated an overall faster speed in finishing some of these cognitive tasks than monolinguals,” Nair said.
The population that Nair studied was a rare group in cognitive science research, and his thesis won the second prize for the Michael Clyne Best Ph.D. Thesis in Bilingualism from the Australian Linguistics Society.
“Dr. Nair’s research on the combined effect of bi/multilinguism and SES on cognition and language learning stands out in the field of speech language pathology—particularly for its implications toward clinician training and practice. It is these implications that Dr. Nair cares deeply about,” said Melissa Luna, associate dean for research. “Dr. Nair’s passion for his research and teaching is evident; he looks to both to impact the ways speech-language pathologists create culturally inclusive interventions informed by clients’ lived experiences. We are fortunate that Dr. Nair has chosen CEHS and our students as he continues his work in this area, and we welcome him to our faculty.”
In the field of speech-language pathology, bi/multilingualism can also impact whether or not individuals who have speech and language disorders are properly identified. According to Nair, some bi/multilingual individuals are misdiagnosed with speech and language disorders because they speak in different dialects or speak English as a second language. Conversely, some bi/multilingual individuals who do have speech and language disorders are not identified because their language disorder is a treated as a language difference.
Nair said that the majority of the available language assessment tests are developed for monolingual, English-speaking children. Those that are available in other languages are adapted from the English versions.
“This is a big issue all over the world and is a very complex area,” Nair said. “When we compare bilingual children to monolingual norms, we are not only penalizing them for knowing another language, but we are also misdiagnosing them, which leads to the overrepresentation of bilingual children in clinics and potentially wasted resources.”
Children who come from bi/multilingual families can face other issues as they enter school. For example, if a child in the United States grows up in a home where English is not the primary language, they are at a disadvantage when they enter a school where English is the dominant language. Furthermore, as the child progresses through the school system, they experience attrition of their first language as they speak the society’s majority language more regularly.
After completing his doctorate, Nair continued to explore phenomena like this while he taught in Australia for two years. He then moved to New York City to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University, where he also served as an adjunct professor prior to accepting his position at CEHS.
“I am so excited to have Dr. Nair join our faculty,” said Kimberly Meigh, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “He brings a unique and exciting perspective to our faculty and curriculum regarding bilingualism and multicultural awareness. I look forward to working with him on a variety of teaching and research initiatives in the future.”
While he prepares to join the CEHS faculty, Nair is developing a course on linguistic and cultural diversity. One of Nair’s goals as an educator is to train culturally competent speech-language pathologists who are equipped to treat individuals who come from diverse, multicultural and multilingual families.
“Right now, because I’m trained as a clinician, I’m mostly interested in increasing the evidence base for treatment so that we can better serve individuals, especially from these populations,” Nair said. “As speech-language pathologists, we treat patients from all different backgrounds and need to put social justice at the forefront of our clinical and research practice. Building evidence for a culturally inclusive treatment is at the core of social justice if we intend to serve culturally and linguistically diverse populations better.”