Specific language impairment (SLI) affects five to seven per cent of the population. Children with a history of SLI have difficulties learning to talk even with adequate hearing and no obvious signs of neurobiological problems.
Childhood language impairment used to be seen as an early years difficulty, with children catching up gradually as they got older.
New research from The University of Manchester shows that Specific language impairment is not just a problem in childhood.
Children who have language difficulties may go on to suffer from assorted emotional and behavioural problems as adults.
Effects of Specific Language Impairment
“Young people who suffer from language impairments are not easy to notice,” says lead author Gina Conti-Ramsden, Professor of Child Language and Learning.
“They look like normal, typical people, and in fact they are. They have many skills and are in fact bright, it’s just that the one thing they are not good at is language. Language is difficult for them, just like playing the piano is difficult for some people.”
“Unfortunately for them everything you need to do in life involves language. To function in today’s fast paced society, to maintain relationships, educate yourself and get a job you need language pretty much every second of every day."
To examine the effects that having SLI in childhood can have on young adults, Professor Conti-Ramsden launched the largest, longest running UK study involving young people with a language impairment.
In the Manchester Language Study, individuals first identified as having a language impairment at 7 years of age were followed up at 8, 11, 16, 17 and 23 years to explore the impact of communication difficulties on their everyday lives.
Difficulty Understanding Speech and Expressing Needs
The study found that a number of young people who had suffered from language problems in childhood often still find it difficult to understand speech as young adults, especially when spoken quickly.
The study showed that these young people had difficulty in expressing their needs, leading to feelings of frustration and in some cases chronic distress.
“Our evidence shows that young adults who have difficulties in understanding what is said to them, particularly in rapid conversation, report that they often feel anxious or depressed, or they tend to get angry easily,” says Professor Conti-Ramsden.
The study also found that adolescents with a history of SLI perceive themselves as having social problems with peers and behavioural difficulties such as hyperactivity and problems with conduct, such as getting angry and losing their temper.
“We found that the lower the ability of adolescents to understand spoken language, the more likely they would report having difficulties in these areas,” Professor Conti-Ramsden said.
These difficulties often translate into problems fitting into modern life, such as maintaining relationships and getting jobs.
More work is needed, according to Conti-Ramsden to make sure that young people with SLI get the help that they need.
“Although speech and language therapy plays an important role in the provision for children with SLI, this generally tends to diminish the older the children become.”
“To my knowledge little specific help is available for young adults with SLI. Because of their normal non-verbal intelligence, they do not fit into adult learning disability services, and because of the lack of information on the extent of their social functioning, they are likely to fall short of social services or mental health provision."
Conti-Ramsden, G., Mok, P.L.H., Pickles, A. & Durkin, K. Adolescents with a history of specific language impairment (SLI): Strengths and difficulties in social, emotional and behvioural functioning. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34, 4161-4169. eScholarID:210536
Hesketh, A, Conti-Ramsden, G. Memory and Language in Middle Childhood for Individuals with a History of Specific Language Impairment. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e56314. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0056314