What is a language disorder? – Medical Essay
People diagnosed as having a language disorder may have trouble with one or several aspects of communication since language is a complex process dealing with the understanding of words and with the fact of using words to
communicate ideas to others. As a consequence, some people may have difficulty to understand language or they may have some problems in selecting or/and producing the accurate sounds and sequences in order to form words and sentences. They may also experience troubles in organising and controlling the different organs needed for speech, such as the lungs and the breath (stuttering) or the articulatory organs. Both children and adults can equally have one or several language disorders, and those problems can be natural (from birth) or can be the result of a trauma or an accident. A wide range of disorders can be distinguished, such as: autism, amnesia, aphasia, dyslexia, stuttering, language loss, etc.
For my part, I will mainly focus on “wild children.” Those “feral children,” as they are also called, are children who have grown with minimal or even a complete absence of human contact. They may have been raised by animals, or in some cases, been confined and denied normal social interactions with other people. Unfortunately, there are numerous cases of such children. The main ones are Isabelle, Helen, Genie and Victor.
The latter lived in Aveyron in France. He was found in the woods, naked. He made no human sounds but just animal noises. People think he had been abandoned, and therefore had to survive in the woods with animals. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard took the boy’s education. After a lot of training such as trying to differentiate sounds or improve his perceptual abilities, the boy could only articulate a few words. However, he never knew how to produce language and remained mute until his death.
As far as Isabelle is concerned, she was in a state of complete confinement living only with a mute mother. “It was determined that although Isabelle had no speech production ability (…), she distinctly indicated a comprehension [of people’s speech].” (Steinberg, 1993:59) Her achievements were far better than Victor since in less than three months, Isabelle could utter full sentences.
Finally, Helen, who was blind and deaf since infancy, learnt to interpret and produce Braille since she had already experienced the initial stages of language acquisition.
2. Use an example of one language disorder and describe the way(s) in which the linguistic functions differ from other language users.
Genie was discovered in the 1970s in the United States. She was thirteen years old and had been locked in a small room in her house by her father for twelve years. At night, she was put into a sleeping bag and placed in a crib. She was fed but never spoken to. Her father beat her very frequently using a wooden stick, and growled at her like a dog. She heard no human voices and her only contact with another human was when she was fed and beaten. She had nothing to look at, nothing to touch and nothing to do. However, she had already begun to acquire language just before her confinement. (Steinberg, 1993:55-57) When Genie was found, she did not react to temperature, could not stand up straight, had learnt to suppress all vocalisation. “She is reported to have been able to produce high-pitched whimpering and imitate a few words and when she was frightened, she would have a raging tantrum.” (Curtiss, 1977) The girl could also not process a sentence of English on the basis of its linguistic content alone. She had to rely on gestures. Genie did obviously not receive sufficient stimulation or exposure for natural language to emerge.
However, after just a few months, Genie became curious and acquired the words for hundreds of objects. In spite of that, although Genie could understand many things said to her, she often gave a delayed response to simple commands. Yet, we cannot be sure that this problem was caused by linguistic features or by the trauma she underwent.
The quality of her speech showed little advancement because the girl spoke as little as possible. She often used one-word utterances even though she was able to produce longer and more complex strings. Another characteristic of her speech was the ritualistic speech: Genie’s speech was filled with stereotypical utterances, like sentences as labels for whole situations. After two years of working, Genie still could not read and did not retain what had been shown to her from one session to another.
Besides, Genie’s pronunciation is marked by a deletion of final consonants, a late use of affricates, a simplification of initial clusters and the intonation was often absent. Next, although children in normal circumstances acquire nouns first, Genie’s early vocabulary included adjectives and verbs as well. The girl, in addition to that, did not manage to permute elements in a sentence as we normally do to build a passive form or to ask a question. She was also not able to substitute nouns into pronouns, except for herself, even if she confused “you” and “me.” (Curtiss, 1977)
In brief, Genie’s language acquisition was studied for about eight years, and we have to bear in mind that Genie made little progress despite the great amount of care and attention she received. Her language ability, both in terms of understanding and in terms of production, remained below normal and her speech continued to be ungrammatical. (Steinberg, 1993:58) That was mainly characterised by a larger than normal comprehension/production disparity, a large competence/performance distinction, an abnormal variability in the rule application, a stereotypic speech, a retarded rate of development and an inability to acquire syntactic forms and mechanisms. (Curtiss, 1977)
3. Explain how this particular language disorder contributes to our understanding of normal language functioning.
People have always wondered whether language is innate ad as natural to humans as walking and smiling. In the sixteenth century, Montaigne claimed: “I believe that a child brought up in a complete solitude, far from all intercourse (which would be a difficult experiment to carry out) would have some kind of speech to express his idea, for it is not likely that nature would deprive us of this recourse when she has given it to many other animals.” (Steinberg, 1993:48) All the researches done about Genie’s language have led to two main theories: the critical age period to acquire language and the lateralization.
a) the critical age period
Lenneberg (1967) proposed a critical period for the development of human language. He suggested that language “is a function of brain maturation and develops ‘from mere exposure’ to a linguistic environment (appropriate stimulation) only during a critical period – from about the age of 2 years to puberty.” (Curtiss, 1977:207) Lenneberg thinks that before the age of two, language acquisition is impossible because the brain is physically immature, and after puberty, it is not possible either, because the cerebral organisation of all mental functions is complete, and cerebral plasticity is lost. However, we cannot be sure that Genie’s poor speech ability was not the result of the negative psychological influence due to her mistreatment. As a consequence, three factors can explain the inability to produce language properly: the age at which the onset of non-exposure to language occurred, the duration of non-exposure to language and the extent of any physical or psychological trauma the person underwent. (Steinberg, 1993:63)
In his “critical period” hypothesis, Lenneberg links the “critical period” to the lateralization of language, mentioning that the cerebral organisation is complete. Genie presented an opportunity to examine the relationship between language lateralisation and language acquisition. To analyse that point, a lot of investigations and tests were undertaken to determine whether Genie’s faculty of using language was situated in the left hemisphere (as most of people) or in the right hemisphere of the brain. The studies show that Genie is using her right hemisphere for language processing. The hypothesis that Genie is a “right-hemisphere thinker,” better at abilities normally localised and controlled by the right hemisphere is supported by evidence. The fact that Genie has a right hemisphere language may be a direct result of the fact that she did not acquire language during the “critical period.” It suggests that after the critical period, the left hemisphere may no longer be able to function in language acquisition, leaving the right hemisphere to assume control. (Curtiss, 1977:234)
Yet, Genie’s condition can be a result of many factors: linguistic, psychological, etc. Therefore, a study of more cases has to be done, but let us hope for humanity’s sake that no cases like Genie will ever happen.
CURTISS, S. (1977) Genie: a psycholinguistic study of a modern-day “wild child” New-York: Academic Press.
STEINBERG, D. (1993) An introduction to psycholinguistics London: Longman, ch.3.