What is language?

What is  Language?

This is a question that has been investigated for thousands of years. In the 19th Century, Linguistics emerged as an area of study. Linguists addressed various questions about the structure of language, about language change and development, as well as about how infants learn language: language acquisition.

At the most basic level, language can be viewed as a vehicle that conveys our thoughts to another person. But it would be too simplistic just to view language as a way of transferring information. Language conveys affection, it builds social connections and it builds relationships between individuals, groups and societies. Language difficulties can impact on a person’s ability to initiate and sustain positive relationships with others.

Language has different aspects and components that are governed by rules. Knowing and understanding the major components of language help Speech Pathologists to pinpoint a person’s specific difficulties and understand how these difficulties impact on their overall communication.

Speech Pathologists commonly refer to three key components of language: FORM, CONTENT, USE (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). A good command of all three components is necessary in order to communicate successfully.

FORM

Each language has rules about the order and construction of its sounds, words and sentences.

  • Syntax

Word order is important. Syntax are rules about the order of words in a sentence. In English, the sentence: “the dog bit the boy badly” is easily understood. Contrast that with  “dog bite boy bad” or “badly bit the dog the boy”.

  • Morphemes

In English, we can add or change the meaning of a word by adding a “morpheme” to some words. We add “-ed” to the end of “walk” to talk about the past (e.g. “yesterday, I walked to the park”). We can add “un-” to the beginning of “happy” to mean its opposite.

Children who make “morpheme errors” typically omit the morpheme. E.g., “I walk to school yesterday” instead of “I walked to school yesterday”. Children typically acquire morphemes by the age of 5.

Older children may have difficulty understanding more complex constructions, such as passive constructions, where the position of the person “doing” the action (i.e., the girl) moves from the head of the sentence to the end of the sentence.

Active sentence: The girl kicked the boy

Passive sentence: The boy was kicked by the girl.

A child with a language delay or impairment may interpret the passive sentence based on the order of the words. In which case, the above passive sentence would be understood as the boy kicking the girl.

  • Phonology

Words are made up of units of sounds called “phonemes”. The contrasts between phonemes are important because together, they affect the meanings of words. For example, the combination of the phonemes in sentence 1 means something different to the combination phonemes in sentence 2, below.

  1. sh + e + l = “shell”
  2. s + e + l = “sell”

A child that does not use “sh” and “s” contrastively may say “sell” for both “shell” and “sell”. Children with insufficient contrasts in their phonological repertoire are difficult to understand. In order to make ourselves understood and to communicate effectively, we must know the contrastive sounds and sound combinations that are used in English.  Difficulties with phonology can impact on a child’s ability to learn new words and grammatical structures.

CONTENT

Language depends on word knowledge (vocabulary), and  knowing word meanings (semantics). It is important to know specific vocabulary in order to describe things or retell events effectively. Children with limited vocabularies may use non-specific language like “the thing” or they may use circumlocution to try to make themselves understood in a roundabout way. As a result, the information provided by a child with a limited vocabulary can be incomplete, inaccurate or unclear. Children with language delays may take longer to learn and retain new words, and they may lack in-depth understanding of the meaning of words. An in-depth understanding of words is important for understanding the relationships between words (semantic categories) and for comprehension of more sophisticated uses of language including humour, metaphors, and figurative language.

USE

There are specific “social rules” which influence our communication style, our choice of words, the volume of our voice, our level of formality, and the type and amount of information that we contribute depending on the situation and on our relationship to the person or people with whom we are speaking. These social rules are also known as “pragmatics”. Children with poor pragmatic skills may:

  • answer questions with irrelevant information or too much information
  • have difficulty initiating or maintaining a conversation with their peers
  • talk only about a preferred topic
  • have difficulty modifying their level of formality in different contexts

Language is functional

Apart from knowing and understanding the major components of language,  it is also important to appreciate the many purposes of language. We use language to achieve many different goals on an every day basis in our interactions with other people. It is important to consider how language difficulties impact on a person’s ability to achieve these goals.

We use language to:

  • Greet – saying hello and goodbye to friends, family, and other people
  • Request an item, an action, or permission  – asking your partner to pass the salt at the dinner table; asking a neighbour to turn down their music late at night; asking your mother if you can play at your friend’s place
  • Reject – saying “no” to a second serving of dinner at your aunt’s house, or to express that you do not want to try on the pair of shoes that the salesperson has recommended for you
  • Gain someone’s attention – calling out to the person who dropped their wallet as they got off the train; getting your friend to look at you when you want to show them something interesting
  • Comment – telling your grandmother that her cake is delicious; telling your students that the brown snakes are poisonous
  • Persuade – giving compelling reasons to your partner about why he/she should agree with your travel destination choice
  • Seek clarification / repetition – asking your mother if she wanted green or brown pears when she asked you to buy her pears; asking your teacher to say the instruction again because you didn’t hear part of it

This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it paints a picture of some of the uses of language, which, as successful communicators, we may take for granted.

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The voice and some common problems

We can tell a lot about a person by just listening to their voice. We can guess their approximate age, their gender, their current emotional state, their wellbeing and even their level of fatigue. Our voice is linked with our identity. Needless to say, we depend on our voice to communicate verbally with others.

How does voice work?

Our voice box, or our larynx, produces voice. We make sound by bringing together our vocal folds while breathing air out from our lungs. When we do this, the vocal folds vibrate, making the buzzing sound that is our voice. We can modulate our voice to make it louder, quieter, higher and lower. We can also ‘put on’ various voices by constricting or stretching different structures in our throat, and by changing the shape of our mouth. A clear voice is achieved when the vocal folds are smooth and hydrated. Diet, lifestyle, illness and psychological wellbeing can impact on the sound of the voice.

The specific characteristics of voice that Speech Pathologists assess include:

  • Volume – how loud or quiet your voice typically is, including your range
  • Pitch – how low or high your voice typically is, including your range
  • Resonance – how nasal your speech sounds. When speech sounds too nasal it is called “hypernasal” and when speech sounds as though the nose is blocked it is called “hyponasal”.
  • Quality – this refers to the clarity of your voice. Your voice can be clear, breathy, hoarse, strained or rough.

What are some common causes of voice problems?

Voice problems are common in both children and adults. The causes of voice problems are various. Very commonly, voice problems are due to vocal abuse – that is, using your voice excessively or projecting your voice too loudly. Certain jobs rely on voice-use in loud environments (e.g. teaching a classroom of kindergarten children, teaching aerobics to loud music). These professionals commonly experience voice problems. Children also use their voice loudly while playing sports, calling out to each other in the playground and when putting on ‘funny voices’. When we yell, or shout excessively, the vocal folds develop small bumps called vocal nodules. Usually these go away on their own after a period of vocal rest, however if our vocal habits do not change, and we continue to exacerbate our voice, they will re-emerge. In the long-term, nodules can harden like callouses and eventually may require surgery.

Voice problems may occur temporarily due to mild illness, such as laryngitis. During illness, the vocal folds may become swollen and heavier than usual. This may result in a lower pitched voice and an intermittent “husky” vocal quality. Usually this goes away within a few days and no treatment is required.

Sometimes, changes in voice quality can be noticed when taking a new medication. Certain medications may dry the vocal folds. Speak to your GP if you notice changes after being prescribed a new medication.

Voice problems can be caused by gastro-oesophageal reflux. With this kind of reflux, acid from the stomach comes up the oesophagus and spills onto the vocal folds, inflaming the delicate tissue.  Reflux may be managed by changes to the diet and lifestyle, as recommended by your GP.

Voice problems, such as total lack of voice can ensue due to excessive stress or certain psychological problems.

Voice problems or disorders may also be the result of other, more serious medical conditions, such as granuloma, a cyst, papilloma, or vocal fold paralysis or paresis after stroke.

When to seek help

The voice undergoes changes across the lifetime, so it is normal to expect certain vocal changes as we age.

You should consider seeking help if you answer “yes” to any of the following:

  • it feels like there is something stuck in your throat
  • you feel a constant tickle or pain in your throat
  • your voice has not recovered after the illness or event that caused it
  • your voice is impacting on your ability to participate in your regular activities

If you are concerned about your or your child’s voice, it is recommended to visit your GP for a referral to see an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist (ENT). The ENT can view the voice box and determine the cause of the voice disorder. Depending on the diagnosis, the ENT may recommend sessions with a Speech Pathologist for education and intervention.

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