7.58% of children suffer from Specific Language Impairment (SLI). In other words, one or maybe two children in every classroom have this disorder, as roughly one in every 14 children are affected by it. This is the case, at least, in the English-speaking world. The figures for the Spanish-speaking world remain unknown, as no epidemiological studies in this regard have been carried out in this population. This is one of the many reasons that have led researchers from the Cognition and Language research group (GRECIL), made up of teaching staff from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Universitat de Barcelona (UB) and assigned to the UOC’s eHealth Center, to organize the CHITEL conference, which will bring together more than one hundred researchers from the main Spanish-speaking countries in a single event for the first time.
The aim is not only to establish synergies with which to carry out studies that cover the particularities of the Spanish-speaking world, but also to reach a consensus on criteria and terminology that will help to advance research. This will be achieved through the Spanish-speaking Association for the Study of Language Disorders (ATLHI), which will be created at CHITEL. “We need to lay the foundations so that everyone uses the same criteria, so that the whole Spanish-speaking world shares these criteria and uses the same terminology”, stated Llorenç Andreu Barrachina, full professor at the UOC Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences and co-leader of GRECIL. He added that, following a detailed examination of the situation of SLI research in regions in which Spanish is the first or second language, in which CHITEL participants answered questionnaires, various differences were found, and this further reinforces the need to reach a consensus on concepts, diagnostic methods and treatment models.
However, in addition to laying the foundations for closer scientific relationships with regards to SLI in the Spanish-speaking world, between 14 and 17 June some thirty researchers will present their work in various lines of research, ranging from SLI in bilingual children to the consequences of the disorder on a social and emotional level; the list of research projects is long and focuses on a diversity of topics. “There’s a wide range of issues: work related to speech therapy, cognitive psychology, studies on identification issues, genetic studies, research on how we process information, what these children’s memory or attention span is like, studies on the areas they have problems with, etc. We are working on many different research lines because language is key to our communication and socialization. This means that SLI or DLD (Developmental Language Disorder) can affect many different areas,” stated Mònica Sanz Torrent, full professor of the Department of Cognition, Development and Education Psychology at the UB and co-leader of GRECIL.
These multiple lines of research have recently been increased by new ones linked to the pandemic, with the arrival of COVID-19 entailing added difficulties for children suffering from SLI due to the use of masks. One of these studies is being carried out by Núria Esteve-Gibert, member of the UOC Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences and researcher for GRECIL, the conclusions of which are due to be published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal. As explained by Mònica Sanz Torrent, face masks may hinder language learning because when children learn to talk, they also focus on facial expressions and the ways in which the mouth moves. “This is the so-called audiovisual integration: in addition to hearing a word in its auditory form, children have visual information of how it is pronounced thanks to movements of the mouth and other non-verbal information; something that is lost with the use of face masks, unless transparent masks are used,” she says, clarifying that, although this situation does not cause SLI, it can be an aggravating factor, especially if it takes place during particularly sensitive periods of language learning.
But, what exactly is Specific Language Impairment? What are its characteristics? As the UOC member of faculty explains, it was almost two centuries ago that a German doctor first described the case of a child who had difficulty learning the language. It wasn’t until 1981, however, when Laurence Leonard, a North American researcher, coined the name of the condition now known as Specific Language Impairment (SLI), which Andreu defines as a severe and persistent disorder in the acquisition of oral language that is not associated with any medical condition, as there is no intellectual, visual or auditory disability to explain it. “It is not a reading or writing problem, although if left untreated, children may have difficulties when reading and writing. It is a specific oral language learning difficulty that may involve one or several components, because there may be children whose problems are primarily found at the grammatical level, at the morphological level, at the word structure level or when structuring sentences. However, they may also have problems at the level of phonetics, speech or vocabulary or even pragmatic problems, that’s to say, you might ask them something and their answer is completely unrelated to the question.” he said. Andreu added that SLI also affects social development, interaction with other people and performance at school. Despite this, it remains relatively unknown by large parts of society. “That’s why the families of these children say that they are foreigners in their own language, and that SLI is an invisible disorder”, he adds.
One of the reasons as to why SLI has gone relatively unnoticed for decades is the importance that our education system places on reading and writing as opposed to oral language. As a result of this, only a few years ago the difficulties of children suffering from SLI were often overlooked, “or mistaken for school failure or reading and writing problems. We now know that what they are missing is this crucial tool for thinking, learning and interacting with other people”, explained Mònica Sanz Torrent.
In light of this, one of the challenges in order to diagnose the condition early is to inform people about SLI and raise awareness of the condition in the wider society. However, this isn’t the only challenge. Other key challenges, according to GRECIL’s co-leaders, include understanding the causes, developing rigorous scientific studies to advance the intervention, treatment and rehabilitation of SLI, and finding out what role technology can play in this work.
This UOC research study supports Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3, good health and well-being; 4, Quality education; and 10, Reduced inequalities.
Schedule of the CHITEL conference (first Spanish-speaking Conference on Specific Language Impairment)
Dates: from 14 to 17 June, online
Opening speech: 14/06/2021, 4 p.m. – 4.30 p.m.: by the rector Joan Guàrdia (UB) and Josep Anton Planell (UOC)
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