College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Winter 3-18-2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Antonio J. Polo, PhD

Second Advisor

Jocelyn S. Carter, PhD


Extant research suggests that language plays an important role in both social processes and emotional encoding and regulation. In dual language youth, the maternal tongue has been observed as a protective factor against maladaptive outcomes (Toppelberg & Collins, 2010). Although Latino youth are at a heightened risk for depression (CDC, 2013), and a majority grow in Spanish-English speaking households (Pumariega et al., 2013), the impact of dual language development in their psychosocial well-being remains poorly understood. It is known that limited English language proficiency during early school years is predictive of maladaptive outcomes such as externalizing problems (Dawson & Williams, 2008). Previous studies have reported associations between Spanish and English self-reports of language proficiency and youth adjustment (Polo & Lopez, 2009). However, research has not examined objective measures of language proficiency and their relation with depression among Latino youth. Further, although some researchers have proposed that language difficulties precede depressive symptoms, the inverse has not been explored. Given the cognitive deficits often associated with depression, it is imperative to disentangle the directionality of this relation and explore the factors of depression that may hinder critical language processes. This study, which included two time points, addressed these gaps by investigating the relation between language proficiency and depression in a community sample of dual language Latino adolescents. Participants included 397 Latino students ages 10-15 years (M = 12.0; 51.9% female), the majority of whom (82.4%) were from families reporting household incomes below $40,000. Results indicate that, at baseline, a majority of the students (58.9%) exhibited higher levels of English proficiency compared to Spanish, and approximately one in five (21.7%) showed limited proficiency in both languages. Also at baseline, youth with limited language proficiency were found to be at a higher risk for depression, and higher Spanish language proficiency was associated with lower depressive symptoms. Cross-lagged panel analyses using longitudinal data indicated that the model for English proficiency (Model 2) fit the data well, χ2(99) = 211.19, p <.001, CFI = .93, TLI = .92, RMSEA = .07 (90% CI [.06, .09]). In a one-year period, increases in English language proficiency are predictive of decreases in depressive symptoms. Likewise, increases in depressive symptoms are predictive of decreases in English language proficiency. Results suggest both Spanish and English languages play a significant role in the well-being of Latino youth, specifically, their depressive symptoms. More needs to be known about the specific pathways connecting language proficiency and depression to allow for the design of appropriate psychological interventions and sensible educational policies for students of diverse linguistic backgrounds. Limitations and implications for future research are discussed.

Keywords: dual language proficiency, depression, Latino, adolescents, cross-lagged panel

SLP Collection