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The challenge of speech-language pathology in a city that speaks ‘Frenglish’

Diagnostic tools to measure the effects of stroke and dementia tend to be unilingual, so local researchers designed one specifically for bilingual Franco-Ontarians
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Assistant professor and speech-language pathologist, Sophie Laurence. (Supplied)

If you speak English as your first language, and you were asked to ‘fill in the blank’ for the next sentence, you might find it easy. 

For instance, “They were fighting like cats and ___”

The answer comes easier to most Anglophones. Dogs. 

What about the poem written in 1784 and is still one of the most used verses in the western world: Roses are red, violets are ___.

Chances are, you just answered ‘blue’. And not just answered blue, but did so immediately and without hesitation. That is key if you are being tested for language — both your ability to speak it, and your ability to understand it. 

But what about the 27 per cent of Sudbury’s population that speaks French as a first language? And not just French, but the very specific regional dialect that is Northern Ontario French, that pidgin of French and English colloquially called ‘Frenglish’. A mix of traditional French and heavily influenced by direct translations from English — let’s be honest, it may not sound as pretty, but sometimes the English word is a much shorter choice — the language is specific to Franco-Ontarians

And so, when looking to ensure that a diagnostic tool, something set out to determine the ability of someone to communicate and comprehend their language, will be effective, it needs to contain instinctive answers, like blue, or dogs, the things that come to mind quickly. That can come from French, both France and Quebecois, but if you are Franco-Ontarian, your dialect is very different. 

This is where Sophie Laurence, speech-language pathologist and assistant professor at Laurentian University, can help. 

Originally from France, Laurence has learned the specific differences between languages, and the way that can change a diagnostic tool. 

“It's a challenge for speech-language pathologists to work with bilinguals who speak French or any other language for that matter. It's even worse in some other languages,” said Laurence. But she said that for ‘bilinguals,’ those who speak two languages equally well, and French and English specifically, there are few tools. “And then there's even less tools for the French in Ontario, which is different from the French from Quebec.” 

So, she and her graduate students created one. 

Based on a standardized tool, one that, through consultation, Laurence found would be the most helpful, she and her team have developed the revised edition of the Western Aphasia Battery, a tool to screen or comprehensively assess adults with acquired neurological disorders like brain injury, stroke or dementia. 

It’s focused on finding the level that the patient is currently at in terms of their ability to speak, to comprehend speech and to read and write, and moving forward to restore language. 

Of course, it is not as easy as a direct translation. That was one of the first hurdles, said Laurence. 

And we’re back to fighting like cats and dogs. 

“That is a common saying in English, but not for French,” said Laurence. Even a direct translation wouldn’t make much sense. Instead, her team offered a different option. “Pas de chicane dans ma cabane.”

There are also pictures with an object that the patient must name and this required a change in the accepted answers. “Many Franco-Ontarian bilingual people, if they were shown a roll of tape, they would say ‘tape’,” said Laurence. The previous tool would only accept specifically French terms like ‘ruban gommé.’ 

The English effect comes in with its influence on French translations. There are many who would call their thumb ‘pouce’ and their index finger ‘l’index’, but when we get to the middle, ring and little fingers, things can get a little confusing. 

“My parents, living in France all their life, they would say ‘pouce’, ‘index’, ‘majeure’, ‘annulaire’ et ‘auriculaire’,” said Laurence. 

But here in Sudbury, that may be more English-influenced. Here, while many would say ‘majeure’, middle finger may sneak through, ‘doigt moyenne’. For ‘annulaire’, perhaps ‘doigt de bague’ (ring finger) or ‘doigt de mariage’. And the little guy? How about ‘petit doigt’, or even ‘pinkie’. 

That is the nature of Franco-Ontarian French. 

The real challenge came with the aspects of the testing that deals with specific syllables and word counts, but after many consultations, those aspects are conquered now as well. 

Of course, the real test of the test is the answers it provides. 

“In the tools there are norms, standards,” said Laurence. These norms are used to measure the patients current level of ability and to ensure that the tool is working, diagnostically.

This is the next phase of the tool’s implementation and something that Laurence is looking for help with. 

Laurence’s team is looking for participants, those who are fully bilingual in both French and English (and only those languages, for the moment), who have had a stroke, or are dealing with the effects of aphasia from brain injury or dementia. It is a chance to see if the new tool is working and to help others regain the ability to read, write and speak. 

If you would like to find out more, you can contact Laurence at SLaurence@laurentian.ca.



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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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