Study Calls Attention to Speech Disorders, but Are We Overreacting?

January 04, 2010 04:10 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A U.K. study finds that one in six children struggle with speech, due in part to busier parents, but the outlook may not be as bleak as it seems.

Is Lifestyle Contributing to Speech Impediments?

Children’s communication expert Jean Gross blames children’s increased TV-watching and video/computer game-usage, and less time spent with adults and parents, according to Rachel Williams in The Guardian. Research also revealed that “twice as many boys struggle as girls,” and that nearly a quarter of children with speech difficulties do not get any help, leaving them at risk for “mental health problems” or future run-ins with the law. Statistics were gleaned from a survey of 1,000 parents living in England, carried out by YouGov.

Gross said higher mortgages and other costs of living are preventing overworked parents from spending necessary time with their children. According to Williams, Gross offered this bit of advice: “Think about what children need. It's not expensive toys and big houses. It's you."

What are the solutions for busy parents?

The BBC posts a video of an interview with Gross, in which she says parents need access to expert advice before children begin school, and that “more speech language therapists” are needed in “the school setting.” Gross also admits the idea that parents can improve children’s speech simply by spending more time with them is “speculation” at this point.

“Normal” Kids and the English Language

Could parents and doctors simply be overlooking the reality that not all children are “advanced” learners?

In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Valerie Ulene notes her son’s preschool teachers’ recommendation that he see a speech therapist. Although she and her husband were not surprised—their son had trouble with certain sounds, she explains—they had assumed “his speech would clear up on its own with time.” They agreed to expensive testing for a disorder, however, and were told that their son’s “speech was perfectly normal.”

Ulene goes on to make the case for embracing “normal” kids, whose abilities seem to “fall short” when measured against “high-achieving or exceptional children.” The typical conclusion among parents, teachers, coaches and doctors is “that something is wrong,” Ulene contends.

Others contend that the English language is not actually as difficult as we often make it out to be. In a recent article, The Economist questioned which languages are actually the most difficult to learn. !Xóõ, a language spoken by only “a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds,” the article states. The Economist notes that English speakers are typically perplexed by languages requiring them “to think about things they otherwise ignore entirely,” such as cases and gender. While it is normal to consider your mother tongue a “complex and mysterious” language, English is actually “pretty simple,” the article suggests.

Background: Speech disorders and late bloomers

The typical “stages” for children learning to speak tend to be “very consistent,” but a variety of factors can impact “the exact age when they hit these milestones,” according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The Association lists such factors for the “18- to 30-month-old age range,” but notes that it is “difficult to say with certainty where any young child’s speech and language development will be in 3 months, or 1 year.”

The University of Michigan Health System explains what causes problems in children’s speech and language, offers tips for parents, and describes typical sounds made by children from birth to “between 5 and 6 years” old. 

Related Topic: Bilingualism and learning

Although the benefits of bilingualism for academic and professional success are well recognized, many parents find it challenging to teach their native languages to their children.

A study cited by Brenda Branswell of the Montreal Gazette showed that “bilingual infants learned both patterns while their unilingual peers grasped only one.” Conducted in Italy, the study focused on children that had also been exposed to the Slovenian language. The “mechanism” involved in the process of learning two languages is still being studied by researchers, Branswell reported.

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