The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


November 2008

Language Deficits of Mental Retardation and TBI

Mental Retardation

– distractibility and a short attention span
– semantic difficulties, with small, more concrete vocabularies
– comprehension superior to expression
– poor morphology
– telegraphic speech
– passive interaction, or physically aggressive interaction
– delays across multiple domains

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

– comprehension problems, especially of sentences
– word-retrieval problems leading to reduced fluency
– syntactic problems, including limited MLU, fewer utterances, and difficulty expressing and understanding long, complex sentences
– reading and writing problems; poor academic performance
– pragmatic problems such as difficulty with turn taking and topic maintenance (often related to poor inhibition and lack of self-monitoring)
– difficulty with attention and focus
– memory problems
– inability to recognize one’s own difficulties
– reduced speed of information processing
– difficulties with reasoning and organization

(from An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology, Celeste Roseberry-McKibben and M.N. Hedge; ProEd; 2000.)

New Study Explores Why Re-Learning is Easier

Why do we never forget how to ride a bike?

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany have demonstrated that when we forget something, contacts between nerve cells may disappear, while many of their appendages remain.

Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology
Credit: Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology

The study closely studied nerve cells when information was blocked and then reopened.  Study researchers were most surprised to find that immediately after being blocked, nerve cells produced more dendrites and synapses, before the connections themselves were then lost.  However, the appendages leading to the lost points of connection remained, as if nerve cells anticipated the possibility of needing them again someday.  When the scientists reopened the information flow, connections re-developed more efficiently.   The original press release is here.  I have to admit that I’m behind multiple other reports of this study, such as this blog, and the story at ScienceDaily.

Return From Chicago

untitled-1-copyI’m finally back from this year’s ASHA convention for Speech and Language Pathologists.  Some nuggets of language learning interest included these:

Marc Fey and Ronald Gillam presented on phases of clinical research in language intervention.  These phases were pre-trial (can a treatment possibly work?), feasibility (maybe), early efficacy (possibly), later efficacy (probably), and effectiveness (yes, but how much?).  The gist was that good research goes in this order.  Not going in this order can be dangerous.  Don’t do effectiveness studies before efficacy studies.

Kerry Ebert and Kathryn Kohnert dicussed the often underated importance of the clinician in treatment untitled-2-copyeffectiveness.  Studies in psychotherapy have found that clinicians can be more important than even medication in determining treatment outcome, but SLP studies rarely consider the therapist.

Tammie Spaulding reported on her work that pretty much all language tests lack both sensitivity and specificity.  Sensitivity is when a test accurately identifies a kid that’s language disabled.  Specificity is when a test accurately shows a kid as not being language disabled.

Teresa Ukrainetz and et. al. asked “How Much is Enough?” while discussing how much therapy clinicians should be giving.  There was a lot of info in this one, such as intervention gains seem better in the first four months than the second, Head Start is effective, teaching vocabulary using context and definitions works better than only context or definitions, and the optimal range for most effective treatment dosage may be between 4 and 12 weeks.

Middendord and Buringrud discussed the SLP role in selective mutism.  While counseling should typically be a large component, the presentation described a possible progression of therapy that can go from gestures to whispering to vocalizing nonsense words to vocalizing with soft voice and finally vocalization with full voice.

A group of presenters from the New England Center for Children described their program of incidental teaching in autism.  They teach strategies to people that work with autistic individuals.  In this program, incidental teaching is contrasted with discrete trial teaching, or ABA-type therapy, although both teaching types can be used depending on a student’s needs.  Because many autistic (and other children with early developing communication) lack the desire to communicate, incidental teaching can be extremely effective, especially considering that a strict adherence to ABA therapy may actually suppress this desire.  In other words, one size does not fit all.

Around the Web – Harvard Magazine

Marc Hauser asks “What Makes the Human Mind?”what-makes-mind-untitled-1

According to the well regarded Harvard evolutionary biologist, we’re talking symbolism, creativity, recursiveness*, and language.  In this article from the latest Harvard Magazine, Hauser does a good job in describing how language is qualitatively different in humans than in animals.  Noteworthy is his point that animals possess “laser-beam” intelligence in specific areas; including chimps and tools, rhesus monkeys and their ability to distinguish singulars versus plurals, and songbirds’ ability to create different combinations of songs for specific things such as marking territory.  Many things that we can do animals can do too.  The difference is that while they possess laser specific abilities, we possess a “floodlight” of human intelligence that can use single systems of thought in multiple ways, and apply information cross contextually.  To begin the quest for our great feat’s origin, read the article.

* language recursion = the ability to extend language, potentially infinitely, by such means as embedding sentences within other sentences.  Click here for more on recursion.

Research Rehash – Albert Bandura

Bandura, Bobo Dolls, and Social Learning 


And the winner is...?

A once habitually traditional behaviorist, Bandura came up with his own spin on things by introducing children to bobo dolls – inflatable pear shaped balloons, weighted at the bottom to induce them to bounce back when hit.  Specifically, the children were introduced to the dolls after first watching adults hit, scream at, and kick them.  The children surprised no one by then punishing the dolls exactly as the adults had, though they’d been given no instructions to do so.  The fact that the children changed their behavior without rewards suggested the major implication of this study:  observation alone can change behavior, and significantly affect learning.  In many cases observation is the most effective mode of learning, with one obvious example being the enormous impact of peer influence.  Many recent theorists believe we are evolutionarily primed to learn through observation. 

Bandura developed social learning theory in response to this and similar work.  Social learning theory emphasizes that  1) people can learn by observing;  2) specific learning may or may not be associated with an accompanying behavioral change;  3) cognition plays a critical role in learning.  Observation is better at teaching some things, such as morality and aggression, and not as good at teaching other things, such as calculus and physics.  With whatever is being taught, modeling can be one of the most effective components.  Here’s some good info on social learning theory, and here’s a good link on Bandura.

So what does this mean for language learning?  For one thing it provides a good counter argument to the assertion that children do not learn language through imitation.  They do, though because the imitation is often delayed after the observation, it’s hard to detect, and harder still to measure.  One example is when a child uses an adult’s (or a peer’s) cuss word.  When another adult says, “I wonder where he got that?”  the question is usually rhetorical.  The answer is obvious… he got it through observation and functional imitation.

Language Deficits of ADHD and Hearing Impairment

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

– often blurting out answers to questions before the questions have been completed
– difficulty following through on instructions; often do not seem to be listening
– talking excessively
– interrupting or intruding on others and poor turn-taking skills
– frequent false starts because they change their minds while structuring a response
– excessive number of fillers and pauses because verbal expression occurs with minimal preplanning
– difficulty describing things in an organized, coherent manner – general difficulty with expressive language organization
– do not tell stories or use narrative skills effectively
– difficulty with social entry into conversations
– use inappropriate register; for example, use the same interactive style with adults and peers
– do not perceive or act appropriately upon interlocutors’ nonverbal cues
– do not use comprehension monitoring strategies

Hearing Impairment

– use of a limited variety of sentence types
– use of sentences of reduced length and complexity
– difficulty comprehending and producing compound, complex, and embedded sentences
– occasional irrelevance of speech, including non sequiturs
– limited oral communication, including lack of elaborated speech and reluctance to speak
– difficulty understanding proverbs, metaphors, and other abstract utterances
– slower acquisition of gramamtic morphemes
– omission or inconsistent use of many morphemes including past tense and plural inflections, third-person singular -s, indefinite pronouns, present progressive -ing, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions
– poor reading comprehension
– writing that reflects oral language problems (e.g., deviant syntax, limited variety of sentence types, omission of grammatic morphemes)

(from An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology, Celeste Roseberry-McKibben and M.N. Hedge; ProEd; 2000.)

Recent Research

Pregnancy diabetes doubles the risk of language impairment in study

This research, gleaned from this link from COMD news was led by Professor Ginette Dionne of Canada’s Universite Laval.  Details have been published in the journal Pediatrics.  Their results showed that children born to mothers with gestational diabetes achieved lower scores on tests of grammar and vocabulary than individuals in control groups.  This difference is not inevitable, however, as children from more educated mothers are much less affected.  Risk factors of gestational diabetes include the mother’s age and weight.

Language Deficits of Specific Disabilities – Apraxia and Autism


– an independent problem of auditory processing deficits
– general awareness of speech problems
– problems in volitional or spontaneous sequencing of movements required for speech with relatively unaffected automatic speech
– compensatory strategy of reduced rate in some but not all patients
– significant articulatory problems, diagnostic of AOS, such as frequent sound substitutions
– more pronounced difficulty with consonants than vowels; more severe problems with affricates and fricatives and consonant clusters; more frequent errors on infrequently occurring sounds
– anticipatory substitutions, e.g. lelo for yellow
– metathic errors (e.g. tefalone for telephone)
– increased frequency of errors on longer words
– trial and error groping and struggling, associated with speech attempts
– greater difficulty on word-initial sounds in some cases
– easier automatic productions than volitional/purposive productions
– attempts at self-correction, not always successful
– errors in prosody, such as slow speech rate, silent pauses between words, and impaired intonation


– lack of interest in human voices and a better response to environmental noises; a fascination with mechanical noises
– slow acquisition of speech sound production and language in general
– disinterest in interaction with others
– use of language in a meaningless, stereotypic manner including echolalia
– perseveration on certain words or phrases
– faster learning of concrete than abstract words, including more ready learning of words that refer to objects as opposed to emotions
– lack of generalization of word meanings
– lack of understanding of the relationships between words
– pronoun reversal (use of you for I and I for you; referring to self as she, him, or her)
– use of short, simple sentences; occasional use of incorrect word order
– omission of grammatic features such as plural inflections, conjunctions
– pragmatic problems such as lack of eye contact and lack of topic maintenance; reduced initiation or lack of assertiveness

(from An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology, Celeste 
Roseberry-McKibben and M.N. Hedge; ProEd; 2000.)

Around the Web

Clue Found for Genetic Contributor to Language Impairment

man-mic-and-gene-untitled-1-copyEd at Not Exactly Rocket Science has given a good description of a new study revealing a link existing between SLI (Specific Language Impairment), Autism and a gene called CNTNAP2.  The short version of the story is this:  higher prevalence of a certain type of CNTNAP2 = higher prevalence of SLI and autism.  Of course, as with any new research, cautions abound regarding the true nature of the cause and effect relationship as well as the need for more research.  Additionally interesting is that CNTNAP2 seems to be controlled by the notorious FOXP2 gene (A.K.A. language gene).  Although FOXP2 was originally hyped as a language gene several years ago because of its high correlation to language deficits, subsequent research has shown that it is present in other species and may be more of a “learning gene,” or “sequencing complex movements” gene.  As far as CNTNAP2 is concerned, despite it’s implication in language disorders, the presence of this connection seems to be much rarer than the disorders themselves.  This fits in well with my prediction that when the research dust settles, we will find that disorders like SLI and autism (much like stuttering has been found to be) involve complex interactions between genetic, behavioral, psychological, and environmental factors.  And, the amount of each of these contrasting, overlapping ingredients will be found to be highly variable from individual to individual.  In my own professional experience as a person who assesses child language, the contribution of persisting phonological production deficits in SLI has been seriously overlooked.

Not only has this study captured the attention of Not Exactly Rocket Science in this post, other bloggers have noticed as well, including AutismVox, and Anthropology.Net.

Some Pragmatic Buzzwords

  • Speech Act – Any actual event of speaking, according to John Austin.  His influential speech acts theory contains other important buzzwords, listed below.
  • Locutionary Act/ Illocutionary Act – Each speech act has both of these.  Locution is the act of saying something, while illocution is the act of doing something with speech.  John Searle categorized illocutions into specific types, such as declarations, questions, directives, representatives, expressives, and commissives.
  • Felicity Conditions – Another of Austin’s buzzwords, used to describe the significance of context for the success of any speech act.  A speaker must meet these conditions, which include preparatory and sincerity conditions, in order to successfully speak. 
  • Performative – Again, Austin’s term for a verb that actually performs the illocutionary act that it names.  In “I promise to bring the drinks,” the word promise is serving as a performative verb.  In “I will bring the drinks,” there is no performative verb used.
  • Indirect Speech Act – When the syntactic form of an utterance does not match the illocutionary force.  These can be difficult for language learners, though their use can lead to powerful implications.  An example is, “I wouldn’t mind some help.”
  • Conversational Maxims – Now we’re on to a different linguistic philosopher – Paul Grice.  There are four maxims that when not met lead to a violation of the cooperative principle.
    • Maxim of Quantity – This suggests that an utterance should have just the right amount of information; not too much or too little. 
    • Maxim of Quality – An utterance should be truthful and based on sufficient evidence.
    • Maxim of Relation – Don’t change the subject.
    • Maxim of Manner – If you don’t say something how you’re expected to, then there must be a reason why.  If I ask you, “Who won the game?” And you yell the answer at me, then your yelling is communicating something beyond the words you use.
  • Cooperative Principle – People that are speaking are trying to communicate.  When one of the maxims is violated, this implies communication beyond the words that are used.  People that intentionally flout a maxim are trying to cooperate by using these violations to communicate.  This is different from when a person intentionally flouts a maxim in order to deceive, or when a person accidentally flouts a maxim, because of being out of touch with a listener’s needs.

Recent Research

The image on the left displays brain activity while reading a book; the image on the right displays activity while engaging in an Internet search. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of California - Los Angeles)

Do Your Brain a Favor – Surf the Web!

UCLA scientists have found that when compared to reading, searching the internet increases brain function in middle aged and older adults.  The study, described here, demonstrates our continued ability to learn as we grow older, according to the UCLA scientists.

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