Opening a Window into the Minds of Language-Impaired Children

Mar 27, 2017

By Larry Greenemeier

Imagine if every conversation you had was like speaking with someone in a foreign language that you only partially understood. Your conversations—to the extent they could be called that—would be filled with an exasperating combination of confusion, frustration and even embarrassment at being unable to comprehend many of the words and phrases that native speakers take for granted. That’s what it feels like for the nearly 8 percent of U.S. kindergartners who suffer from a developmental disorder called specific language impairment (SLI), except that instead of struggling with a foreign language they find it difficult to communicate verbally in any language.

Children with SLI—also called developmental language disorder—can hear just fine but have difficulty processing the meaning of spoken words. It takes them longer than other children to learn to speak. When they do start to form words and sentences they tend to leave off the grammatical endings of verbs that indicate past tense, and their words do not always come out in the right order. These difficulties affect their ability to read, and thereby their ability to learn in general. Researchers have struggled for years to understand the disorder, challenged by their communication barrier with the children they study. In recent years scientists have begun to realize that their best source of information about SLI is visual rather than verbal—a child’s gaze speaks volumes when words fail.

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