Back to school: Speaking Normally Does Not Come Naturally for All Young Children

And Hashem said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, Hashem? Exodus 4:11 (The Israel Bible™)

Parents take it for granted that when their newborn babies become toddlers, they will begin to speak and to do so properly. But this doesn’t always happen. Developmental language disorder (DLD, previously known as receptive-expressive language disorder or specific language impairment) is common in young children and may occur in 10% to 15% of those under the age of three years. 

DLD is a persistent type of speech, language, and communication problem that can’t be explained by an obvious cause, but it is usually identified in children when their development of talking falls behind that of other children of the same age and interferes with everyday life and school achievement. 

It is not caused by hearing loss, physical abnormality, acquired brain damage or a lack of language experience. A child may have immature speech, not say very much, struggle to find the right words and don’t seem to understand what is said. Your child may overuse “um” and “uh” because they cannot recall the right word, according to Afasic, a British voluntary organization that deals with DLD. 

Difficulties with talking are not always easy to spot and may be hidden behind difficulties with paying attention, following instructions or getting on with others. If your child has persisting difficulties with talking, it is important that a qualified speech and language therapist can assess his or her speech, language, and communication.

By age four, language ability is generally more stable and can be measured more accurately to decide whether or not a deficit exists.

Other symptoms include reduced vocabulary in comparison to other children of the same age, a limited ability to form sentences, an 

impaired ability to use words and connect sentences to explain or describe something, a reduced ability to have a conversation, leaving words out, saying words in the wrong order, repeating a question while thinking of an answer and confusing tenses. 

Often, the cause of this DLD is unknown. Genetics and nutrition may play a role, but these explanations haven’t yet been proven. Normal language development involves the ability to hear, see, comprehend, and retain information. This process may be delayed in some children, who eventually catch up with peers.

The most frequent treatment for language disorder is speech and language therapy, and early intervention is important. 

Now, researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv have identified speech patterns that characterize stories told by monolingual and bilingual children with DLD. A new grant by the Israel Science Foundation will make it possible for researchers to study the impact of the narrative invention in such children. 

In a study just published in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, the researchers analyzed how preschool children refer to characters when they tell stories. The journal article was titled: Referential Cohesion in the Narratives of Bilingual and Monolingual Children with Typically Developing Language and with Specified Language Impairment.” 

Eighty-four preschool bilingual (Russian and Hebrew) and monolingual (Russian or Hebrew) children retold stories in both languages. Findings showed that both bilingual and monolingual children with DLD used pronouns (such as “he” or “she”) to introduce characters both in their mother tongue and in the societal language (Hebrew). As a result, the story they tell is difficult to follow. 

Children with typical language development (TLD) use nouns appropriately and rarely use pronouns when first introducing characters in their stories. 

The researchers also found that children use different numbers of nouns and pronouns during storytelling in their two languages. Russian-speaking monolingual children used mostly nouns (such as “cat” or “dog”), while Hebrew speakers used more pronouns (“he” or “she”).

The Bar-Ilan study is the first to analyze reference to characters by bilingual children with DLD in both their languages. “The results have both educational and clinical importance since reference to characters is one of the crucial factors affecting how the narrative is understood and interpreted by a listener,” noted Dr. Sveta Fichman at the department of English literature and linguistics who conducted the research as part of her doctoral dissertation together with her advisors Dr. Carmit Altman, of the University’s Churgin School of Education and Bar-Ilan emeritus Prof. Joel Walters. 

When it is unclear to whom a child is referring – such as when a child says “he jumped” and there are two or three characters in the story that the pronoun can relate to – the listener is confused. 

The study’s findings of the study will inform teachers, speech-language clinicians, and parents, teaching them how to focus on the use of nouns when first introducing new characters. In addition, teachers and clinicians will become aware of language-specific characteristics of reference to characters in the mother tongue, the researchers report.

Altman and Walters recently won a four-year grant totaling more than one million Israeli shekels from the Israel Science Foundation to study the impact of narrative intervention with English-Hebrew and Russian-Hebrew preschool children. The study will examine a wide range of narrative features in both languages of bilingual children with DLD in an effort to understand potential transfer of narrative skills across languages from both home-to-school languages and from school-to-home language. Findings are expected to contribute guidelines for best practices to assist preschool teachers and policymakers.