Speech pathologists coming from The University of New Mexico are going to be able to help even more patients now, thanks to a new offering from UNM Speech & Hearing Sciences.

The Department’s Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology now offers a bilingual concentration. This huge step towards equitable treatment has been in the works since 2019, the same year Assistant Professor Carlos Irizarry Pérez joined UNM.

“This will help support the needs of our community by training clinical practitioners with specific training in working in a multicultural /multilingual community. Dr. Irizarry Pérez was the main force behind this concentration,” Speech & Hearing Sciences Professor and Department Chair Phyllis Palmer said.

Irizarry Pérez knows firsthand how important it is to recruit speech-language pathologists (SLPs) into the field and how much more important it is to get SLPs competent to work with bilingual populations.

“We've been talking about it ever since I came here about how it is a much-needed demand in our field,” he said. “It will be great for those students that are wanting to take specialized coursework and working towards being a bilingual speech-language pathologist in particular. These are students that see themselves working with a client population that consists of bilingual individuals. They can take these extra courses now to prepare themselves for that work, so that's pretty important to us and our community.”

While many students enrolled are either learning the Spanish language or are already bilingual, this concentration offers specialized coursework for anyone.

“Part of our job as SLPs is to be able to identify those children that have communication disorders and that also have linguistic differences–that speak more than one language, that have varying exposure to different languages,” Irizarry Pérez said.

The concentration is built around three courses for three credit hours each: Bilingual Acquisition (SHS 561) or Childhood Bilingualism (LING 562), Bilingual Assessment and Intervention (SHS 562), and Cultural Responsivity in Speech and Hearing Sciences (SHS 520).

“That knowledge of what is typical and then what is not typical becomes really important,” Irizarry Pérez said. “We can begin to identify where we may see a linguistic difference. Within that difference, are we also seeing something that is representative of a communication disorder, even in those cases where we may not speak all the languages that the child speaks?”

It is built as a concentration as well for students who are only proficient in English. “Regardless, they should still be prepared to interact with bilingual families,” Irizarry Pérez said.

“It is the expectation of our field and our department that all students be trained on how to work with bilingual clients. It is really an attempt to try to meet the needs of both our professional community and the local community here,” he said. “I think the big reason we wanted to make this more accessible to other students is to help them understand that even if you aren't bilingual, you still are likely to work with bilingual clients and you may want to specialize or have that be a specialty part of your practice.”

This works out well for about six students already, who had been taking variations of these courses; now, they get to declare an official concentration with only adding a little extra work.

“Even before we made it an official concentration, the courses have been on the books for some time. The foundation for the coursework and this concentration was set by Dr. Barbara Rodriguez with her Class-4-All grant many years back. We're saying, ‘okay, now that you've taken these courses, we're going to go ahead and acknowledge that in some way and put it together as something more formal,’” Irizarry Pérez said.

The Department of Linguistics has also been an integral part of this concentration. Irizarry Pérez couldn’t teach all the classes himself, so Professor Naomi Shin's addition has been immensely important.

“We've been able to still develop it and create it just within the departmental resources we have. These are courses that we have always thought were important. However, I also have other courses I need to teach, so having that support from linguistics and the collaboration with their department has been really helpful. We are super grateful.” Irizarry Pérez said.

The new concentration will help fill a huge need in New Mexico, where roughly one-third of residents speak another language other than English.

“Depending on the setting you might be in, that number could be even higher. I always tell my students it's not a matter of if you're going to have bilingual clients –it's about how many will be on your caseload. It is a real high need, particularly for New Mexico, but I think also just in general for anyone that wants to be a speech-language pathologist,” Irizarry Pérez said.

The use for a bilingual concentration extends far beyond the Land of Enchantment. In a 2021 survey conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), only 8.2% of speech-language pathologists identified as multilingual.

UNM is setting the path for other universities in this field. While concentrations like this are increasing, Speech and Hearing Sciences also intends to stay ahead by eventually adding a certificate.

“That's really our next step. It is definitely something that makes our department unique. The University of New Mexico now offers the option to get a bilingual endorsement, and so this really helps incoming students that are going down this route to be able to prepare for future clinical certification,” Irizarry Pérez said.

There’s also the potential for students to engage in a future certificate in a language other than Spanish, as long as the proper clinical hours are available. What’s most important is that hands-on, bilingual learning is happening early on in a speech-language pathologist’s career.

“Here's this concentration, which means you have the knowledge. You've taken the courses that anyone can access about bilingualism– what is typical, what is atypical, and then, if you are bilingual yourself and you want to get specialized training in working in a specific language, then we would have this certificate that would incorporate clinical hours actually serving bilingual clients. That's a piece that we're still developing, but that's where we're hoping to eventually go,” Irizarry Pérez said.

The concentration will officially be offered in fall 2024 through the Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences. Irizarry Pérez welcomes questions and future students.

“Anybody who's maybe thinking about entering our field or pursuing either an undergraduate or graduate degree in Speech & Hearing Sciences, thinking about the concentration now actually really helps,” he said. “Then, we can help to make sure that the sequence of courses lines up with that goal and that students are able to work it into their schedule.”

For more information, visit the Speech & Hearing website.