A Look into the Journey of a Bilingual SLP Grad Student

After moving from Puerto Rico to Ridgewood, Queens in New York City at the age of 10, Angelica Gonzalez is an ambitious student clinician studying to become a speech language pathologist, with a great career on the horizon.

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1.  It seems like, having known you a year, that you work nonstop. What does a typical day look like for you while in your last year of grad school?

“On the weekdays, I wake up at 5 a.m. in order to prepare for my two externships which both start at 8 a.m. and occur on alternating days.  After finishing a work day at an externship, I work full-time at a not-for-profit called Quality Services for the Autism Community (QSAC) as both a Bilingual Medicaid Service Coordinator (MSC) and MSC Documentation Specialist.  In order to make up my full-time hours at work, I also work on the weekends.  In other words, I have been working practically every single day during graduate school.  Most of my study hours are on weekends and typically occur late in the evening.  I am dependent on this routine, so that I can pay for basic necessities (rent, groceries) while in school.”

2.  Describe your educational background in Puerto Rico and the United States.  Did you speak English in Puerto Rico?  When you first arrived here, did you have any difficulty in an academic environment when working in the English language?

“Fortunately, I was raised from birth as a simultaneous bilingual.  That is to say, we spoke Spanish and English interchangeably at home.  In Puerto Rico, I was in a private school where all of my classes and textbooks were in English except for Spanish class.  Most of my teachers in elementary school had a Spanish accent when speaking in English which in turn influenced my pronunciation of words in English.  The education system in P.R. is very different in that they focus on mathematics, science, and the island’s history. When I first came to the U.S., I was immediately placed in ESL due to my heavy accent and the fact that I was afraid to speak in English.  Most importantly, I had gone through “culture shock” which was also reflected in my timid personality.  Although the school systems were so different, I was able to adapt within a month or two at the appropriate grade level with motivation to exceed.”

3.  How has your bilingual background affected your desire to become a SLP?

“When I was 10 years-old, I had to quickly adapt to the school system in the United States.  I was classified as an ESL student even with my knowledge of the English language, which again I had learned at a young age.  That same year I arrived, when I was in 5th grade, I won the school spelling bee when competing with every monolingual and bilingual student in my elementary school.  Moments like this should raise a red flag for a school, that there is a possibility of misplacing a student into an inappropriate setting.  My mother argued with the school administration until I was placed in a classroom without bilingual instruction.  They warned her that I would fall behind. After being placed into the monolingual classroom setting, I came home with perfect grades.  As a Hispanic woman who went through an ESL program due to a lack of language assessment, I realized that I needed to be in a field, such as Speech-Language Pathology, where I would be able to speak on behalf of other students and adults who may be misdiagnosed as having a communication and/or language disorder when instead they may present with a language difference or simply an accent.”

4.  How have you used your Spanish-English bilingual background in the field as a student clinician?

“As a Spanish-English speaking bilingual, I have assisted Spanish-speaking clients and their families in the interview process, screenings, speech-language evaluations, swallowing evaluations, and cognitive-linguistic and dysphagia treatment.  Throughout my time at externships, I have begun to understand the need for bilingual SLPs, in order to avoid further misdiagnoses, and in order to provide efficacious therapeutic services for various cultural backgrounds.”

5.  What would you define as a major obstacle when working with bilingual populations as a student clinician?

“Although I speak, read, and write fluently in Spanish, I have to remind myself that there are different Spanish dialects which can become an obstacle when utilizing a Spanish standardized assessment.  For example, some words that are found in my culture may have different meanings in the Spanish-Mexican dialect.  Therefore, there is a need for Spanish speaking SLPs of every Hispanic culture and the use of dynamic assessment in order to truly distinguish language differences and accents versus language and/or communication disorders.  This holds true for every ethnicity as well.”

6.  What is your goal in the field as a soon-to-be SLP?  

“My goal is to become a medical SLP where I can assist Spanish-speaking and English-speaking children and/or adults who may present with cognitive-linguistic, communication deficits and/or dysphagia.  As an SLP, I hope to assist as well as touch the lives of individuals, helping them to achieve their full potential and effectively communicate within their natural support systems.”

7. How will you utilize your language knowledge to accomplish these goals?

“As a simultaneous bilingual, I acknowledge the importance of accessing both languages during spontaneous recovery.  My goal is to emphasize that any language spoken in order to communicate needs and/or wants is the ultimate goal of therapy.  I want to contribute to the Hispanic community by providing translations and bilingual therapeutic sessions.”

8.  What do you think, in relation to language, a speech-language pathologist should keep in mind?

“As SLPs and SLP student clinicians, we need to remind ourselves that not all individuals who speak the same language have the same dialect, because that could lead to misdiagnoses.  We should also keep in mind that standardized assessment may be based on a normative sample that may be culture-specific such as Spanish-Mexican dialect.  If an individual presents with an accent, that individual requires dynamic assessment in order to discern if they truly require programs like ESL.” 

Angelica is graduating this May with a M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from St. John’s University.

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