A joint speech-language certificate means more development support for Francophonie children

Researchers aim to improve access to speech-language pathology services for French-speaking students.

Danica Erickson - 28 March 2024

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While working in French immersion and Francophonie schools, former teacher Jade Lewis had a realization. “I saw these schools don’t have enough speech therapists to provide either treatment or assessments in French,” Lewis says. This meant Francophonie students who needed support had two options. The first was to have an educational psychologist try to evaluate the language components that a speech-language pathologist (SLP) should evaluate. The second was to see an English-speaking SLP.  Lewis believed neither of these options was adequate for the students.

Knowing there must be something she could do to improve the situation, Lewis took action and applied to the master’s in speech-language pathology program in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “In my application letter to the SLP program, I wrote that I saw these underserved communities and I wanted to be the person that I wasn't seeing there.” 

Lewis is now in the second year of her master’s program and is also pursuing a certificate in Francophone practice for speech-language pathologists through Campus Saint-Jean, where she obtained her education degree. 

Her capstone research project is investigating phonological awareness — the ability to move sounds around and perceive them. Phonology is one of the first parts of a child’s language that develops and is a building block to language and then literacy, both of which are key to children being able to communicate and have their needs met.

Her capstone research project is investigating phonological processes — the sound errors present in children’s speech. Better understanding around how multilingual children acquire the sounds and sound rules of the French language is the key to better identifying which children will need additional support to be able to communicate and be understood. 

Lewis is doing her research with Andrea MacLeod, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine’s communication sciences and disorders program. MacLeod, who grew up speaking both French and English, is interested in opportunities people have to use both of Canada’s official languages.

“My research aims to better understand challenges with dialects that are spoken, exposure to languages and how bilingual people learn languages. Understanding these factors such as exposure and differences in dialect means we can support children, their families and clinicians by aligning services with the needs and challenges that people are experiencing,” says MacLeod. 

The certificate program offered through Campus Saint-Jean is a valuable partnership for the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, because despite the fact that Canada is a country with two official languages, MacLeod’s research focus isn’t common. “In Canada, we’re one of two teams that are studying French outside of Quebec, so we're bringing this new research on French phonology outside of Quebec,” says MacLeod.

MacLeod’s work is currently focused on French phonology, but with the increasing number of people in Canada who speak multiple languages, she has broadened this focus. That’s where her Multilingual Families lab, which works to understand bilingual development and also support multilingual families, comes in. “Making sure that our systems are as inclusive as possible and thinking about how to meet diverse needs is really important for us,” says MacLeod,  

Lewis believes that because of a shortage of multilingual professionals and resources, Canada’s current health-care system is ill equipped to properly identify bilingual or multilingual children at risk of falling behind in language development. As a researcher, she also knows that current data does not necessarily accurately represent the languages of a typical kid in Canada.

 “We're always comparing everyone to a monolingual English kid, but that’s like comparing apples to oranges. Multilingual children’s speech doesn't follow the same patterns or the same timing as that of monolingual children, which means bilingual and multilingual children can end up either over- or under-identified as having difficulties. Those are both major issues.” 

Lewis started learning French and studied for her education degree in French at Campus Saint-Jean because of her love of the language, and she wants to show her appreciation through her research with MacLeod and the Multilingual Families lab.

 “I want to give back to the French community, which I feel has given a lot to me. I want to contribute to that equitable access to health care. I want to help kids be able to participate in any language that they are their family find meaningful,” says Lewis.