UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 05 | Mar.
Study suggests different tack for learning disorders
Cultural differences in how adults talk to children need to be considered , say
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
"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
if we are to offer parents advice that is culturally
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
"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,
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.