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Germany

New Hope for Speechless Children?

Communication is something most of us take for granted. However, many children lack basic speaking skills. A new "early childhood language acquisition" project launched in Berlin aims to help these children.

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Crying is the first step to speaking

Johannes doesn’t feel like cooperating today. Instead, he just sits and stares at the young research assistant who is desperately trying to make him utter a word – his first one. Johannes is two, an age at which most children are able to compose two-word sentences.

A hopeless case?

Over the past two years his parents have been dragging Johannes from one speech therapist to another, without much success. Their main concern is that their son might never make it into the first grade of a regular elementary school. They are worried he will end up in a school for handicapped children.

Now, at the children’s hospital in the Berlin suburb of Lichtenberg, Johannes is participating in a language acquisition project they hope will enable him to catch up with other kids his age.

The environment is to blame

According to Professor Karsten Nubel, one of the experts involved in the long-term research project, the number of children with language acquisition deficits is dramatically on the increase.

The audiologist told DW-WORLD that there are two main reasons for this phenomenon. "To some extent," he says, "our environment is to blame. There is less time for children, and television has taken on a more prominent role. On the other hand, it could just be the case that we’re now monitoring speech impairments more precisely."

On the floor of the play room at the children’s hospital in Berlin, Johannes is still silent. He is one of 250 toddlers whose utterances, or the lack thereof, form part of the first international study of language development.

No cure, but hope

The German Language Acquisition Development (GLAD) project is a unique effort to combine case study research in the fields of language acquisition, cognitive psychology and speech therapy with practical therapeutic experiments. The project’s objective, which is supported by scientists at research institutes and university clinics in Leipzig, Magdeburg and Potsdam, is to find indicators of "specific language impairments."

At this point, there is no "cure" for language acquisition deficits. But scientists like Nubel and the project’s director Weißenborn hope the project will help them find what Nubel refers to as "predicaments for early childhood language acquisition". The project, which initially began with the analysis of case studies such as Johannes’, has been underway since January 2001.

Because most cases of language impairment occur at the age of two, the initiators of GLAD, with generous support from the German Research Society (DFG), focus on children between the ages of one and one-and-a-half. "It is important to identify speech impairments at the earliest age possible," says Nubel, "simply because at age two or older the cognitive apparatus of the child is too advanced and corrections are impossible."

The long road ahead

In order for speech therapists to help children with language impairments at an early age, it is necessary for scientists to gain a better understanding of how exactly children understand language. With the help of infants like 18-month old Max, project coordinator Henrike Hultsch hopes to gain important further knowledge of the mechanisms at work in a child’s brain and the predicators of language acquisition disorders. As part of the long-term study supported by the DFG with a generous three-year research grant, the tests done on Max and other infants examine the cognitive process of young children.

In particular, the tests aim to examine whether infants think in terms of categories. With Max, the scientists want to find out if he can distinguish between wooden animals of different shapes – and make his decision process audible. As Max looks at the pairs of animals lined up in front of him, his eye movements are measured.

The GLAD researchers are confident that this summer, after less than one year of research, they will have more evidence of language acquisition disorders in young children. "At the moment," says Nubel, "we have unconfirmed evidence that there are variations in the brain itself which are genetic and produce functional changes. These changes can lead to problems with language development later on. With GLAD, we feel we finally have a tool that can help prevent speech impairment."

At the Berlin clinic, after almost two hours of experimenting with various tinker toys, Johannes seems to feel that he did his bit for the project and takes a nap on the floor. Another hard day of work is over.

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