AAC and English as a Second Language (ESL)

Labor Day weekend is over, schools are back in session, and SpeakUP is back – with a new look.  Today we are excited to welcome a guest post from Vicki Clarke about AAC in English as a second language (ESL) learners.


Over the past 5 years, I have been  working in smaller communities and rural school districts outside of Atlanta, Georgia. In this 75-mile radius around one of our country’s most culturally diverse cities, I find myself wishing I had retained substantially more of the Spanish speaking skills my teachers worked so hard to teach me in primary and secondary schools. My three years of Spanish lessons gave me the confidence to briefly greet someone, order a drink, find the restroom, and request a towel at a resort in Mexico one summer. But frankly, my understanding of Spanish is much better than that. I can follow a very simple conversation and pick out enough words to nod my head when the interpreter is translating my professional explanations to a family. Even then, I think about how fearful I would be trying to navigate basic life activities, much less educating my child with a disability, in a country where Spanish was the primary spoken language.

And yet I encounter families in this exact situation almost daily, both in the schools I serve and in our AAC-focused clinic.

A child smiles at the camera. His speech generating device is on the table in front of him along with a toy monster.

A bilingual child is using his speech generating device to comment on the book he is reading during therapy.

We have several bilingual families who attend speech, language, and AAC therapy each week at our clinic. Some families speak fluent English, and some speak very little, beyond basic greetings and social exchanges. As a predominantly English-speaking community, all of our therapists are native English speakers and are instructing in English with rudimentary Spanish-speaking skills.

All of our families have accepted English speaking augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices without question. This seems to happen for several reasons.  Many families hesitate to inconvenience others to accommodate their home language. Even when offered available Spanish voices and page sets, families have, almost graciously, chosen to use English as the language of their child’s device and the language used in intervention. Speech language pathologist, Amber Kirscher’s patient, a charming and engaged young man using an eye gaze accessed communication system, has only English on his device, despite living in a home that predominantly speaks Spanish. Although his therapist described and offered the possibility of using Spanish pages on his device, his parents felt we shouldn’t worry about adding his primary language.

This family explained a common misconception that even professionals propagate, that a child with a language impairment will struggle having to learn two languages at once. Amber’s patient hears English at school, so his device should be in English, the family reasoned. His mother interprets Amber’s directions in the clinic, and yet his device speaks English. Two different speech therapists specifically advised another patient’s family to stop speaking Spanish at home as soon as he and his sister were diagnosed with language impairments.

Another bilingual young adult who uses AAC in our clinic has a communication device which speaks only English and uses a voice with an American accent.  His family categorically rejected the Spanish voice despite the accents held by all other family members. There is a perception that the non-dominant language, Spanish in this case, is inferior and less socially acceptable than the dominant language. Our culture often assigns stereotypes to speakers whose speech reflects any deviation from the standard American speech, whether that is a Spanish accent or a Southern accent.

I typically serve self-contained classrooms for children with disabilities in my school districts. In all of these classrooms, instruction is delivered in English. Even students whose families predominantly or exclusively speak another language at home are expected to learn in English. None of my students in special education receive English as a Second Language (ESL) support services.

When we add the need to use a third, visually based language system, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), we are now asking our students with disabilities to learn to communicate using a system they often never see modeled, based on a language (English) that is rarely spoken at home, for the purpose of responding to academic demands……before they ever learn basic interpersonal communication skills in any language.

Why is this happening? Soto and Yu, 2014, explored the provision of AAC services to bilingual children and their families, reviewing extensive research on the subjects of AAC, language development, and disabilities for this population. They report exactly what we are experiencing: that professional services are often provided in the socially dominant language (English, in our case). Researchers also describe the commonly held fear among professionals and families that bilingualism would be too difficult for students who already struggle learning and using one language. It seems common sensical, and yet:

It is an incorrect myth that bilingual language development is more difficult than monolingual language development.

The research cited in Soto and Yu’s 2014 paper tells us that bilingual students who maintain their home language as they are learning their second language have higher graduation rates, improved social/emotional health, and show better cognitive and academic gains. For students learning AAC, this second language affords them more opportunities to find ways to show meaning with more vocabulary and more language.

The research consulted seems to clearly indicate that encouraging and promoting a student’s language and augmentative communication in both their native language and the language of their local community is our best practice.

Stay tuned for Part II for a discussion various bilingual AAC options, training and support concerns, and implications for AAC use.


Soto, G & Yu, B. (2014) Considerations for the Provision of Services to Bilingual Children Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30:1, 83-92, DOI: 10.3109/07434618.2013.878751 Accessed on-line https://doi.org/10.3109/07434618.2013.878751

Cummins, J. (1989) A Theoretical Framework for Bilingual Special Education, Exceptional Children, 56:2, 111-119. Described on-line at http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/cummin.htm

Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingual Education and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy, San Diego: College Hill Described on-line at http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/cummin.htm


Vicki Clarke is the CEO of Dynamic Therapy Associates, Inc (DTA Inc.), a speech language pathology clinic specializing in AAC. She is the Director of DTA Schools, a division of DTA Inc, which provides individual student, classroom and district-wide AAC services for consultation, assessment, training, curriculum development and equipment procurement in multiple public school districts. Additional professional activities include professional consultation and training through publications, workshops and presentations at local, state and national conferences in the areas of augmentative communication, speech language pathology, special education and Autism.

Mrs. Clarke has no relevant financial relationships to declare.


Jill E Senner, PhD, CCC-SLP

Thank you for reading this blog post. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of USSAAC members and board members. No endorsement by USSAAC is implied regarding any device, manufacturer, resource or strategy mentioned. We would love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with a comment below or send a message through our contact page.

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