Wednesday 12 December 2012

Speech and language

Generally speaking, speech concerns physical abilities, whereas language concerns cognitive abilities. Speech is what we say and hear, in actual linguistic interactions, language is what allows us to produce and perceive speech as mediating meaningful interactions. This is why speech bubbles are called speech bubbles and not language bubbles.

Image © Marian Sigler (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

The medium of speech is sound, although language ability does not exhaust itself in sound-mediated languages: sign languages are a case in point, making it clear that speech and language are independent abilities.

Both speech and language feature in the job description of clinicians dealing with spoken means of expression. We can produce and perceive what sounds like intact speech but might not be cognitively processed as meaningful interaction, as John Cleese demonstrates in a lecture about the human brain; and we can have intact language abilities without being able to produce intact speech, as when we stammer or stutter: Cleese’s Monty Python co-star Michael Palin explains what led him to create the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.

Stammering and stuttering are a source of concern among parents of multilingual children, judging by the amount of queries I receive on this topic. The usual question is whether multilingualism can “cause” these disfluencies. The answer is that it cannot, because multilingualism is a matter of language, not speech – and because multilingualism does not “cause” any problems of any kind (I’ll have more to say about “causes”, scare quotes included, in a coming post). Stuttering and/or stammering are well-attested consequences of something else, small children’s newfound abilities to string words together by means of grammatical constructions, and newfound eagerness to say everything they want to say at the same time, as I noted before. This is why children may stutter/stammer in one of their languages, but not in the others, and these are developmental rather than pathological issues, which sort themselves out in time.

Other features of child speech may have similar or different explanations. Having “trouble with ‘r’ sounds” (another common question I get) can also be developmental. These speech sounds are among the last ones that children acquire, because their production involves quite sophisticated control of articulators and airstream. Many of us have trouble with ‘r’ sounds throughout life, in early or later languages: just do a web search on e.g. “rolled r”, or “learn to trill”, or “pronouncing r”, to see what I mean.

In contrast, “not pronouncing the letter ‘s’ at the end of words”, as one parent once wrote, may be worth investigating further. Sounds represented by ‘s’ are also a typically late acquisition, and avoiding their troublesome articulation by omission is then a developmental speech issue. However, depending on factors such as the child’s age, or linguistic environment, absence of ‘s’ sounds at the end of words may point to a grammar issue, and so to a language issue: in several languages, including English, word-final ‘s’ sounds represent grammatical noun plurals or person/number verbal inflections, of which the child may not be developing cognitive command, as in, for example, SLI (Specific Language Impairment). My Ask-a-Linguist FAQ ‘Child language acquisition’ gives a brief overview of typical language development, meant to help caregivers make informed decisions about whether and when to worry about children’s speech and language development.

Language ability can be gauged through speech – though not exclusively. A bit like driving ability can be gauged by the way you drive a car, though not exclusively. Analysis of speech samples collected from clients is one of the many ways through which speech-language clinicians acquaint themselves with their clients’ abilities, in order to decide whether and how clinical intervention is required for speech, for language, or both. The ASHA site has more information on speech and language in clinical settings. And Charles Sturt University has just launched an online resource dedicated to Multilingual Children’s Speech. It includes a downloadable Position Paper, created by the International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech, of which I am a proud invited member.

The next post will have something to say about a well-known cause (no scare quotes) of our speech-language abilities: the ways we’ve learnt to adopt and shed cultural traits which characterise our different environments.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Roots and wings. Saturday 22nd December 2012.

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