Why is the Study of Language Structure Important in Communication Sciences and Disorders?
The ability to communicate is a basic human need. According to Fogle (2013), in the book “Essentials of Communication Disorders”, communication is “any means by which individuals relate their wants, needs, thoughts, knowledge, and feelings to another person”. Communication occurs through various modalities, which influence the capability to communicate with each other. They include verbal, non-verbal and paralinguistic processes. However, some people experience difficulties in communication and as a result, they cannot convey or receive verbal messages properly and with ease. Some of the causes include impairment of the physiological systems, psychological or mental disorders or delayed language development. The challenges in communication are referred to as communication disorders defined by American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) as “any impairment in the ability to receive, send, process, and comprehend concepts or verbal, nonverbal and graphic symbol systems”. ASHA classifies the disorders into language disorders, speech disorders, and hearing disorders (Fogle, 2013). Language disorders hamper human ability to comprehend and/or use symbols of a language to communicate. It could be due to language development delays or another disability interfering with auditory-verbal modalities. Due to the essential need to communicate by humans, it is important to understand how language disorders occur, interventions and how they manifest.
One of the fundamental modalities of communication is verbal communication that occurs by speaking, hearing, and comprehending words that are written, spoken, or signed. It is used commonly in schools to share knowledge and skills. Thus, it is vital for human development. In any language, the words used need to be properly formulated in sentences with proper grammar, vocabulary and following the rules of conversation. Humans communicate using various languages that have rules guiding symbolic formulation in conveying messages. Owens (2012) defines language as “a socially shared code or conventional system for representing concepts through the use of arbitrary symbols [sounds and letters] and rule-governed combinations of those symbols [grammar]”. One is considered to have learnt a language upon having mastered various components of language including phonology, syntax, lexicon, pragmatics, and semantics. Syntactical rules (syntax) dictate the acceptable sequence and combination of words in a sentence to convey meaning; the study of sentence structure. An example is the mandatory inclusion of the subject before the verb in an English sentence, which isn’t a rule in Spanish language sentences.
Children with hearing and mental impairments experience problems in communication caused by congenital disorders, syndromes or acquired disabilities such as physical injury. It is important that such people are helped early enough to avoid deteriorating a communication disorder. One of the interventions of hearing disability is cochlear implantations. In a study by Guasti et al (2014), interventions of congenital hearing through cochlear implantations were found to be effective depending on how early they are implanted. The effect on various aspect of language structure was studied in Italian language among 33 Italian children. One of the observed effects was on the use of clitic pronouns. Children were tested on whether they would omit the clitic pronoun; replace it with a pronoun or a pronoun. The study was carried out by showing the children pictures and asking question that would elicit use of the pronoun. Age of implantation affected usual use of clitic pronoun, suggesting early intervention to be necessary.
Language disorders are expressive and/or receptive. Expressive challenges occur when individuals above appropriate age for expressive language are unable to formulate and produce proper sentences. On the other hand are receptive language disorders, which are comprehension challenges due to lack of understanding a language. However, it is important to note that not only do language disorders occur due to physiological, mental, social, or environmental deficiencies but also due to cognitive weaknesses. Children with such phenomenal and unaccountable disorders are said to have specific language impairment (SLI). These children appear to use grammar of fully developed or adult age.According to a study by Finneran, Leonard and Miller (2009), schoolchildren with SLI have subtle but persistent challenges in constructing sentences compared to their peers. Also notable has been the finding that school-age children with SLI, who do not stutter but have speech difficulties, have more speech disruptions. Thus Finneran et al advise that despite the seemingly fully-developed language in SLI, they have problems with fluency that require to be attended by teachers, speech pathologists or parents.
One of the measures of language development is ability to narrate. Children with difficulties in narration are not only at risk of not developing socially but also linguistically and academically. The underlying need to be able to narrate is due to the extensive language properties involved in the process including conversational structures, artistic expressions and mundane and informal tales (Ochs & Capps, 2001). Children who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) have been found to have difficulties in developing narrative skills. As studied bySoto & Hartmann (2006) the difficulties range from lack of coherence and poor organization of narratives. Besides illogical organization, children with AAC were found to have poor vocabulary application and sentence structures. Soto & Hartmann identified deficiencies in use of linguistic verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, pronouns and elaborated noun phrases.
Autism is a congenital disorder that causes language disorders. These include syntactical difficulties as an expressive challenge as well as in use of gestures. Thus, such children require individualized educational programs to stimulate physiological processes and even enable language development. According to Durrleman et al (2015), studies assessing syntax in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are few in conflicting. Some researches propose that deficiencies in mophorsyntactic ability are not influenced by cognitive skills and are SLI shortfalls while other says that severity in grammar is similar for ASD of same mental age. Expounding on this aspect, Durrleman et al attempted to assess syntax in ASD. Their study concluded that there are subtle challenges in grammar, in comprehension of relative clauses, which is persistent in adulthood in people with ASD compared to their peers of normal IQs. The deficit may go undetected using conventional standardized language tests.
Although, there has been a great deal of research on language disorders, it is not enough to characterize the diverse disorders. Efforts to describe how various language disorders manifest in people is vital in order to come up with appropriate interventions. Statistics indicate that close to half of kindergarten children have difficulties in learning language as they proceed in school(Clark &Kamhi, 2010). Therefore, such research would aid in coming up with the best approaches in helping to overcome the difficulties. Also important is realizing that interventions through assessment and aided communication are required for communication ability. Understanding syntactical structures are important in understanding languages in order to identify the disorders. It enables proper and accurate identification of causes of the deficiencies in any language.
Clark MK, Kamhi AG. (2010). Language Disorders (Child Language Disorders). In: JH Stone, M Blouin, editors. International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation. Available online: http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/encyclopedia/en/article/31/
Durrleman, S., Hippolyte, L., Zufferey, S., Iglesias, K., & Hadjikhani, N. (2015). Complex syntax in autism spectrum disorders: a study of relative clauses. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 50(2), 260-267.
Finneran, D. A., Leonard, L. B., & Miller, C. A. (2009). Speech disruptions in the sentence formulation of school‐age children with specific language impairment. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 44(3), 271-286.
Fogle, P. T. (2013). Essentials of communication sciences & disorders. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar.
Guasti, M. T., Papagno, C., Vernice, M., Cecchetto, C., Giuliani, A., & Burdo, S. (2014). The effect of language structure on linguistic strengths and weaknesses in children with cochlear implants: Evidence from Italian. Applied Psycholinguistics, 35(04), 739-764.
Owens, R. E., Jr. (2012). Language development: An introduction (8th ed.) San Antonio, TX: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon
Plante, E., Bahl, M., Vance, R., & Gerken, L. (2010). Children with specific language impairment show rapid, implicit learning of stress assignment rules. Journal of communication disorders, 43(5), 397-406.
Soto, G., & Hartmann, E. (2006). Analysis of narratives produced by four children who use augmentative and alternative communication. Journal of Communication Disorders, 39(6), 456-480.