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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 05 | Mar. 8, 2001

Study suggests different tack for learning disorders

Cultural differences in how adults talk to children need to be considered , say speech researchers

by Hilary Thomson staff writer

Speech scientists call it Motherese.

This special combination of language and behaviour that adults use to talk to young children has been re-examined from a cultural perspective in a recent study completed at UBC's School of Audiology and Speech Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine.

The survey of 97 Chinese-Canadian and western mothers in Vancouver uncovered different beliefs and practices when it comes to language interactions with children.

"Cultural differences become particularly important when children have learning disorders," says Prof. Judith Johnston who conducted the study with PhD student Mei Yin Wong. "We need to know about these differences if we are to offer parents advice that is culturally appropriate and useful."

Speech language pathologists work intensively with parents on parent-child interaction patterns that foster language learning. Advice to parents has largely been based on research with western families, however, and cultural influences were virtually ignored.

Chinese-speaking Canadians form the second-largest client base for speech language pathologists in Vancouver after English speakers. There are few Cantonese-speaking speech therapists.

Mothers of children two to four years old responded to the 32-item survey that was developed in both English and Chinese. The survey looked at beliefs and practices regarding the value of talking with children, methods of parental teaching, including children in adult conversations, and other issues.

Researchers found that Chinese-Canadian survey respondents agreed more strongly than western mothers that young children learn best when they are given instruction and that young children should always be encouraged to communicate with words rather than gestures.

Western mothers believed more strongly than Chinese-Canadian respondents that using baby talk hampers a child's language learning, that young children learn important things while playing, and that children should be included in conversations with adults outside the family.

Differences in practices included more use of picture books or flash cards to teach language amongst Chinese-Canadian mothers. Western mothers tend to favour reading a storybook at bedtime, talking about what happened during the day and repeating what the child says while adding new words to build language skills.

"This information has real clinical implications," says Johnston, who is a developmental psychologist as well as a speech language pathologist.

"In areas where western practices are not appropriate, we can help Chinese-Canadian families find practices from within their culture that will have the same effects. A better cultural fit means our educational and counselling programs will be more effective."

For example, storytelling in a Chinese-Canadian family might replace book reading in a Western family.

Designing a survey where nothing "got lost in translation" was a challenge, says Johnston.

She and Wong consulted with child language scholars and also with speech language pathologists and social workers from both cultural groups. In addition to developing the survey in both languages, it was translated into Chinese and back into English twice to ensure the highest degree of comparability.

About three to five per cent of young Canadian children have language learning difficulties, according to a recent study.

Support for this study was provided in part by the Community Care Foundation, an organization that seeks to maintain, protect and improve the community's medical and health-care services.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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