If “learnable” is the way to go for phonology, what about the other areas of oral language?

The Fab 5 Areas of Oral Language are…

If you’re a former student of mine and you happen to be reading this – quickly remind me, what are the Fab 5 Areas of Oral Language?

They would be:

  1. Syntax: The word order rules of a given language (e.g., English’s Subject-Verb-Object order)
  2. Semantics: Words and the meanings/concepts behind them (i.e., a synonym for semantics is vocabulary)
  3. Morphology: Smallest units of meaning in a given language (i.e., both free & bound morphemes)
  4. Phonology: The speech sounds and speech sound patterns of a given language (e.g., which sounds can occur syllable initially or syllable finally; which sounds can combine to form consonant clusters)
  5. Pragmatics: The social use of language (e.g., use of eye contact with unfamiliar people; the ‘register’ you use depending on how well you know the other person)

“Learnable” refers to the amount of room a concept (or in our case, language structure) can be further developed for an individual. The learnable concept has generally been applied to phonology. For example, sounds that are excluded from the child’s phonetic inventory and for which they aren’t stimulable (i.e., inventory constraint) are more learnable than sounds the child has, but does not use in all permissible word positions (i.e., positional constraint). In other words, the less you know about a thing, the more learnable it is for you.

It’s been my clinical and research experience that what is good for phonology generally is good for the other areas of oral language. Really, when you think about it, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Phonology is one of the Fab 5 Areas of Oral Language and highly intertwined with morphology, semantics, and syntax.

Let’s go out on a limb here – a safe sturdy limb, I promise. What if we used the same concept of “learnable” across other areas of oral language? If you’ve been reading this blog and/or you’re a former student, then you know why I think treating pronoun “errors” is a waste of time in the therapy room. The problem isn’t the pronouns themselves. The problem is the client doesn’t understand that verbs must be marked for tense, person, and number. Treat the verbs and the pronouns will come. Tensing the verb phrase is learnable for clients who make these types of errors. Are we agreed on that?

Now, let’s think even more outside the box. What if you selected morphosyntactic treatment targets that were more learnable for clients than third person singular or regular past tense verb forms? Many of these clients also demonstrate difficulty with generating grammatical yes/no questions, relying instead on tonal question intonation so that their communication partner knows they are asking a question. Question formation in English is a relatively complex process. To form a yes/no question in English, one must take the copular verb from the declarative statement, change the copular verb form to an auxiliary form, then move the tensed part of the verb phrase to the head of the interrogative. Like I said, yes/no question formation is a relatively complex process in English. So, let’s put this in ‘plain English’ with an example. Your client with a moderate mixed receptive-expressive language impairment generally asks yes/no questions by saying something like, “My turn?” or “Want one?” or “You going?” While this works conversationally (we all do this!), let’s look a little deeper at what’s going on. Let’s take “you going?” first. This question comes from the declarative/statement, “You are going.” This utterance contains an auxiliary verb phrase “are going” and follows English’s strict subject-verb-object order. But, to make it a grammatical question, the tensed part of the auxiliary verb phrase has to move to the head of the utterance so that it becomes, “Are you going?” The same process occurs with “Want one?” The declarative utterance is “You want one,” where “want” is the tensed, 2nd person copular verb phrase. In English, to make this a grammatical yes/no question, we must insert an auxiliary form of “do” to the head of the utterance when we invert the verb phrase. That’s how we get, “Do you want one?”

English questions are higher up on the morphosyntactic hierarchy than English statements. That means questions with inverted verb phrases should be more learnable for clients who demonstrate verb tense errors because they are more complex. What if you skipped working on 3rd person singular or regular past tense and started with treating question formation first? I don’t mean teaching clients to answer questions. I mean teaching clients to ask grammatical questions. What would happen if you paired teaching clients comorbid speech sound and morphosyntactic impairments to ask grammatical questions at the same you teach more learnable phonological contrasts for them? What system-wide changes would you expect if you used this two-pronged approach?

As it happens, I do have the data to back up my queries. I have data for typically developing, high density dialect speaking children, data for MAE-speaking children with Down syndrome, and data for children with comorbid SSD & DLD. I call it the CLOUDS Approach (Cultivating Language OUtcomes in Diverse Systems) and will present the data in the next posts.

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