Language impairment in children is defined as language problems that are not due to hearing difficulties. Children with language impairment have difficulty registering the components of language correctly, and also have difficulty producing sounds, words and sentences. Professor of Speech and Language Therapy Birgitta Sahlén has devoted most of her research to these children.
Children with language impairment do not have problems with hearing, but rather with the brain’s interpretation of the sound signals. It can be very small differences in sounds and stress that are not picked up, for example the difference between the Swedish words hoppa and hoppar.
“They may perceive the differences in sound if they hear them in isolation, but they have difficulty picking them up in running speech”, says Birgitta Sahlén.
Her research field is neurolinguistics, i.e. the connection between language and the brain. What is it that has gone wrong in the development of the brain when children do not perceive the linguistic contrasts that others learn without any problem? Is it possible to increase these children’s understanding of language with the help of the right training?
Children with language impairment often have difficulty simultaneously processing and storing information, for example remembering new words that they have just heard. This can make it difficult for them both to find the right words when they speak and to understand other people. As they get older, the problems are often reflected in their reading and writing.
“Their language is poorer, quite simply. It isn’t only the case in primary school either, but can follow them throughout school. Children with language impairment may gain basic skills in reading and writing, but they have difficulty establishing an unimpeded flow in their reading, writing, storytelling and conversing”, explains Birgitta Sahlén.
Professor Sahlén has worked with different methods of diagnosing language impairments, identifying their causes and as far as possible treating their effects. It isn’t entirely easy: language impairments are difficult to overcome and affect the life of the individual both in school and in social contexts.
An additional problem for children with language impairment is that their families are often also affected. The Lund researchers’ studies have shown that a large proportion of all schoolchildren with language impairment have siblings, parents and grandparents with language-related problems. This means that they are unable to get help at home with reading and writing.
There is light on the horizon, however, in the form of new types of training programme. Tests of the “imitation method”, in which schoolchildren will see how other children think when they write (see related article), are one example. In the autumn, the method will be tested on both children with normal hearing and children with hearing impairments (who often have the same types of problem as children with language impairment).
Another experiment being carried out in collaboration with Linköping University is about phonetics training for children with severe hearing impairment. The aim of the project is to improve children’s phonological ability – the ability to distinguish between different speech sounds.
“The children sit at home and practise on the computer for seven minutes a day for three weeks. They really enjoy it!” says Birgitta Sahlén.
The reason it is enjoyable is that the training programme more closely resembles a computer game than language training. In one version, the children see a number of balls on the screen and a voice says different sounds. If the voice says “L” the child has to understand the sound and quickly shoot the L ball. If the voice says “FA” the child has to shoot the FA ball, and so on. Another version features ladders that the child has to climb by correctly identifying sounds, syllables and words. The children compete against themselves and get rewards for every level they complete in the game.
The idea behind the game is that the children’s phonetic system is developed through the sounds they hear being supported by the letters they see. The results so far suggest that the training game has a positive impact. The greatest impact is on the children who need it most, which is exactly what had been hoped.
“There is also an idea of making the game into a mobile app. Then it could be used by children in developing countries who don’t go to school. They could learn to read by listening to the language sounds and playing the game on a mobile phone. It’s a fantastic possibility!” says Birgitta Sahlén.