Children's language problems encumber education and employment in later life

On a global level the development of language and speech is delayed in about one in every five children. It is estimated that 50–80 percent of children who have been diagnosed with language problems face a risk of learning difficulties later, and about 20 percent have been found to have difficulties in finding a career and getting work. Language difficulties also add to emotional challenges in a person's life.

As the problems manifest themselves differently different languages, developing language-specific research and rehabilitation methods is also challenging. The need is increased by the growth in the share of the population with multilinguistic and multicultural backgrounds.

Intervention in children's language difficulties is a cost-saving measure for society.

Children's language problems are a topical theme of research at the University of Oulu. Sari Kunnari, Professor of Logopedics at the University of Oulu, is involved in four research projects linked with the theme. One of these is a cohort study ascertaining what factors that increase the risk of difficulties and which ones protect against difficulties and long-term effects for education and employment.

“Without timely intervention in the language problems of a child, the various support measures that will be needed will prove very expensive for society”, Kunnari says. Early diagnosis of language difficulties is of key importance. Signs of these can be identified among children under the age of two, but the difficulties can be identified more reliably at ages 4–6. Diagnosis is based on research by a multiprofessional working group.

Revealing Nonword Repetition task

Signs of possible language difficulties include slow development of vocabulary, problems with speech intelligibility, and difficulties in understanding instructions and in combining words into sentences. One key method used in identifying difficulties is a nonword repetition task that has been widely used as a measure of phonological short-term memory. In this task, children hear a nonsense word and repeat it. Many studies have shown that nonword repetition performance is associated with variety of language measures. Sari Kunnari has taken part in developing Nonword Repetition tests both ones that are independent of language and others that are more language-specific. The same European research network has also developed a narrative method suitable for both monolingual and multilingual children, which has shown promising results internationally in identifying language difficulties.

Children's language problems focus on the areas of either speech production or comprehension. Manifestations include difficulties in mastering the sounds of speech, words, inflection, and sentence structure, and in how language is used in interaction with others. Many risk factors lurk in the background. There is strong evidence of the importance of heredity, but factors in the growing environment, such as language stimulation activities, the amount of time spent passively sitting in front of a screen, and the educational background of the parents can also have an impact.

Help from speech therapy

The most important form of rehabilitation is speech therapy, in which a child's disorders in language and speech, as well as difficulties in interaction are alleviated and eliminated. Speech therapy also includes preventing problems through, for example, systematic guidance, in which the parents are given ways to support the child's linguistic development.

A child's linguistic development has been found to be quite language-bound. Consequently, language-specific methods are needed both in evaluation and rehabilitation. The need is enhanced by growth in multilingualism. The effort is worthwhile, as the speech therapy is cost-effective and an efficient use of resource.  

Children's language problems pose difficulties for later education and employment, but problems in language and speech can be resolved.

Last updated: 17.8.2021