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How to Overcome a Language Problem

Copyright 2008: Remedium. This article may not be copied, in whole or in part, without the written consent of Remedium.

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca…

Unless one has first learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one will be able to read the above Indonesian sentence.

Language plays a vital role in reading. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer or ice-skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. One cannot read a book in a language unless one knows that particular language. If a child's knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor. This means that the cause of a reading problem can go even deeper than merely that the foundational skills of reading have not been adequately mastered.

If a child's grasp of the English language is inadequate, the only way through which his reading could be improved, would be by not only teaching the skills foundational to reading, but by also improving his command of English. Without effectively working at improving his English, the reading ability of the child will not improve. Let us refer to this kind of problem as a "language problem." Comprehensive reviews of the evidence that links reading problems and language problems have been extensively presented in the literature. The following are just a few examples:

  • A study of Doctor Renate Valtin of Germany, based on one hundred pairs of dyslexic and normal children, found indications of backwardness in speech development and a greater frequency of speech disturbances among dyslexics than among normal children.

  • According to Doctor Beve Hornsby it has been stated that about 60 percent of dyslexics were late talkers.

  • In her book Learning Disabilities, author Janet Lerner states, "language problems of one form or another are the underlying basis for many learning disabilities. Oral language disorders include poor phonological awareness, delayed speech, disorders of grammar or syntax, deficiencies in vocabulary acquisition, and poor understanding of oral language."

Preschool children suffering temporary deafness over a period of time due to infections of the ear, or children, who have been diagnosed as hard of hearing at a late stage, will often have a language problem. However, the most common indication of a language problem is that the child started talking late, or is language delayed, as this problem is referred to in the literature.

In most cases, a baby should be able to understand simple words and commands from the age of nine months. From around a year, he should start saying his first words. From about two years, he should be able to use simple phrases, and by three he should be able to use full sentences. By four, he should be fully able to talk, although he may still make grammatical errors. By five, he should have acquired basic language.

If a child talks immaturely, or still makes unexpected grammatical errors in his speech when he is five years old, this should alert the parents to probable later reading problems. The parents should immediately take steps to improve the child's language. Even when a child is older already, but has a history of late talking, the parents should also follow the advice given below to improve the child's language. The method that will be explained has proved to be extremely effective, but it will also be explained to the reader how and why it works.

Let us consider how a child learns language. Remember that it was explained that there is nothing that any human being can do which he has not learned to do. This is especially true of language. One very often encounters the expression "language development" when referring to the child's acquisition of language. By this expression it is often intended to imply that the child's acquisition of language is an automatic process.

This is a completely misguided idea. Language development should not imply that it is an innate and "natural process" or that the child's knowledge of language grows by itself as the child's physical body grows. In fact, his body will also not grow if the child is not fed regularly. Even physical growth then, does not happen by itself.

Parents should start talking to their little baby from the day he is born. Some mothers are by nature quiet and reserved. Others have the unfortunate idea that it is foolish to talk to their babies, knowing that they do not understand. The mother, who does not talk continually while feeding, bathing and dressing her baby, is laying the foundation for a late talker.

The baby learns language in one way only, and that is by hearing language as the parents talk and talk to it. The more a parent can talk to a child, often repeating the same words, the same phrases, the same structures over and over, the sooner the child will learn language.

An important thing to note here is that by the time a baby is about nine months old, as was mentioned above, he should be able to understand simple words and commands. He may perhaps also be able to say a few simple words already. Invariably, however, one finds that the baby understands much more than he is able to say. In fact, this remains so of any person throughout his life. One is always able to understand more of any language, even one's mother tongue, than one is able to use in active speech. This is even more so of any second or third languages that a person is able to speak.

This shows that we have two more or less separate masses of language knowledge, our passive knowledge (also called receptive language) on one hand, and our active (expressive language) on the other. When we listen or read, we make use of our passive vocabulary, and when we speak or write, of our active vocabulary. An important thing to note here is that the child's passive vocabulary came into being through constant repetition of words, phrases or structures. Once a word, phrase or structure has been repeated often enough, it also becomes part of the baby's active vocabulary. As stated by Dr. Beve Hornsby, a child who is just beginning to talk must hear a word about 500 times before it will become part of his active vocabulary. Long before that it will already form part of his passive vocabulary.

This shows that the active vocabulary can only be improved via the passive. The stratified nature of learning therefore also applies here.

Overcoming a Language Problem

When a child has a language problem, that is, when it is suspected that his vocabulary and use of language is not up to expected standards, then there is only one way in which this can be remedied, and that is by providing the child with enough opportunities to hear language. There must be enough repetition of the same words, phrases and grammatical structures.

A practical way of providing the child with enough opportunities to hear language, is by following the steps below. (Note that, if you do this right, the biggest effort would be to find and record suitable stories. The daily implementation does not require any of the parent's or of the child's time.)

1. Find a story that is suitable for a child one to two years older than your own child. The story must be no more than 10 minutes long. Make a recording of this story, taking pains to read it as clearly as possible. Alternatively, you can buy a suitable story. You will also need a tape player, CD-player, Ipod or MP3-player with an auto-reverse function. You may or may not use earphones.

2. This recording must now be played to the child for three hours per day, or as close to three hours as possible. (Two hours per day would probably be sufficient if the child's language problem is not severe.) What is needed is complete immersion. Playing the story only two or three times a day will not achieve much. However, it is not necessary for the child to sit still and listen to the story. Rather, a background of language must be created for the child, so that he can continue with his other daily activities against this background. The volume should be set so that the words will be clearly audible, but not so loud that it is disturbing.

The recording could, for example, play while the child is

  • getting dressed in the mornings,
  • being transported to and from school,
  • playing with the dog, and
  • sitting at dinner table.

One can also play the recording for the first hour after the learner has gone to bed. And, if it doesn't disturb the child, one can leave it playing throughout the night.

3. As was mentioned above, repetition must form the backbone of this background. The same story must be played over and over until the words, phrases and grammatical structures in the story have become part of the child's active vocabulary. This will take about three months, and in some cases even longer.

4. After at least three months, the same procedure must be followed with a new story. The child must listen to it continually, again for at least three months.

5. In this way one continues, playing the same story over and over and over for at least three months, using a new story every three months, until the child's active vocabulary is up to standard.

The correct teaching method always delivers excellent results. Even a severe language problem can, by using the correct method and creating a sufficiently stimulating environment, be overcome.

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