360 degrees of Speech and Language - Alison Mann The Voice 360 degrees of Speech and Language - Alison Mann

We’ve just come back from a fabulous holiday in the USA.  We travelled all over and visited family and lots of friends.  We had a great time, but one of the things we noticed was that everywhere we went people struggled to understand our accents.  

Many times over we were asked if we were Australian?  Now, if you’ve heard me talk you’ll know that I do not sound Australian.  I think I’m easy to understand, but nevertheless people struggled to grasp my accent and when they did they often didn’t understand the words that I was using.  The first example of this was at the car hire company when we enquired about sat nav to be treated with blank stares. We found out after a tricky five minutes that this was called GPS over there.  Many more examples of misunderstanding ensued over the next two weeks.  For example, I was in conversation with one of my son’s friends and in response to a question about time I replied half seven.  He looked puzzled and politely asked me “what time is that”?  My response “you know half seven”.  He still looked puzzled and said “do you mean half to seven”?  Eventually we got to the bottom of the matter when I explained that it meant 30 minutes past seven.  It appears that in Arizona they don’t use that term.  Similarly, my husband’s cousins laughed when we were helping them clean up their kitchen after dinner, and without thinking asked them to pass the tinfoil.  They had no idea what on earth that was.  They laughed even harder when we said “aluminium” referred to as aluminium over there.  Another funny incident was when a bride groom to be, was telling us about his upcoming wedding and how he was going to wear suspenders with his suit.  My husband was momentarily shocked until he realised that he meant braces over his trousers!!!!!!!  Now, I’ve travelled to the US before and knew that quite a lot of words were different.  There’s the old pants versus trousers example, sweater versus jumper, fanny vs bum, chips vs crisps, but this time it made me really pause and reflect on just how immersed we are in the languages, that our own communities use.  We use many words, terms and expressions that for the most part everyone around us uses to.  We take these phrases and expressions for granted.  It is only when we travel somewhere else that we even begin to think about them.

On radio 4 last Saturday (3rd September 2016) there were two amazing programmes that are worth a listen to if you get time:



The first of these was called “A Journey through English”.  I listened fascinated as the programme followed a train journey from Scotland to Cornwall.  They interviewed people travelling on the train on each stage of the journey and chronicled all of the diverse dialects and accents present in our country and culture.  The second programme called “The Forum, Awakening Language” was about many of the world’s languages dying out and efforts to regenerate them.  It too was fascinating.

It made me think about language, how it develops and how we use it!!!   What is language?  Human beings communicate with each other in many ways, we laugh, we shriek, we smile, we shrug our shoulders, we raise our eyebrows, we clench our fists, but this has its limits.  If we want to convey more than this and shares our thoughts, feelings, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, opinions and wishes then we need something more.  Language is that something more.  Language is a shared human code of symbols that uses signals such as voice sounds, gesture and written symbols.  These symbols represent something….an object, an action, a description, an idea, a time period, a number, or a feeling.  The symbols have rules.  If we alter them a certain way according to the rules of our language then they can convey even greater meaning. For example, in English we know that when you add an “ed” to the end of a word it means it happened in the past tense.  Alternatively, if you want to convey that there is more than one you add an “s” onto the end of a word.  Language is a code that we generate when we want to express something and we decode when we want to understand what someone means.  Whenever I think about this, I always have an image in my mind the secret codes sent during WW2 and the enigma machine that encrypted them and the machine that was designed at Bletchley to decode them!!!  


Those codes were designed to convey information to people, that providing they had the right key to the codes, could decode them and understand their messages.  Language is a highly complex skill, yet most of us acquire it at an early age without even thinking about it.  It is only when we visit a foreign country where we are not familiar with the language that we even think about it.  

Imagine then if you have a language disability such as SLI (otherwise known as Specific Language Impairment).  Specific language impairment is a language disorder that delays the mastery of language skills in children who have no hearing loss or other developmental delays.  Children with SLI are usually as able and healthy as other children in all ways, with one exception; they have enormous difficulty talking and understanding language.  This is their main area of difficulty.  This means, for example, a child with SLI might be bright, but struggle to understand the language used in the classroom. They may have lots of ideas but find it hard to make sentences to say what they are thinking, but they do not have any other condition that may be causing these problems.  Children with SLI are all very individual.  

Early Signs of SLI:

Understanding language

  • They make slow, little, or no response when someone speaks to them.  You might need to repeat an instruction several times and make it much simpler
  • They often rely on visual information to get things right, for example, watching others to find out what an instruction means

Using language

  • They may not use many different words
  • They find it hard to link words together to make sentences
  • The language they use can often sound jumbled up and can be difficult to understand
  • They may point or show what they want rather than say it
  • How they say speech sounds can be very slow to develop and so speech is difficult to understand

SLI is a very broad category, with some children having mild problems that are short-lived.  Others have severe and persistent difficulties with both understanding and talking.  Children with SLI are often late to talk and may not produce any words until they are 2 years old.  At age 3 they may talk, but may not be understood.  As they grow older, children with SLI will struggle to learn new words and make conversation.  Having difficulty using verbs is a hallmark of SLI.  Typical errors that a 5-year-old child with SLI would make include dropping the “s” from the end of present-tense verbs, dropping past tense, and asking questions without the usual “be” or “do” verbs.  For example, instead of saying “she rides the horse,” a child with SLI will say, “she ride the horse.”  Instead of saying “he ate the cookie,” a child with SLI will say, “he eat the cookie.”  Instead of saying “Why does he like me?” a child with SLI will ask, “Why he like me?”  Studies have shown that in 5 year olds, SLI affects about 2 children in every classroom (about 7%).  It is more common in boys than girls.  There is no obvious cause of SLI.  We know that the speech and language part of the brain does not develop in the right way, even though there are no other problems, and that genes play an important part in causing SLI.  Unfortunately there is no medical test to see if a child has SLI or not.

However, what we do know is that without help children with SLI don’t learn language in the same way as other children; they won’t just “pick it up.” just by being spoken to and encouraged.  In the same way that the scientists at Bletchley could not crack the codes without help, children with SLI need support to decipher language.  They need language to be taught.  They need to get the right support to do this so that they can learn and develop to their full potential.  In the case of Bletchley it was a machine; for children with SLI it is the support of a speech and language therapist.  Without this support, SLI may cause a child lifelong difficulties.  As a child learns to talk they need to:

  • Learn to understand words, sentences and conversations (often referred to as receptive language)
  • Learn how to talk using words and sentences (often referred to as expressive language)
  • Know how to use language the right way socially with others. For example, listening as well as talking, taking turns and talking to a teacher differently than to a friend (often called pragmatic language)
  • Say speech sounds correctly so that they can be understood by others

Children with SLI will continue to need support throughout their childhood.  The type of difficulties a child with SLI has can change as they get older.  It is really important that a regular assessment is carried out to make sure that a child with SLI is getting the right support at the right time.  The help that they need might change as they get older.  Support can come in various forms.  It can be with teaching specific speech and language skills, educating parents and schools how best to support a child, developing social skills, or promoting self-esteem and building confidence in the person with SLI.  

So, next time you travel overseas and find yourself misunderstood spare a thought for what it must be like to have a language disability.

Written by Alison Mann on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services