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NMSU professor looks for causes of unusual speech pattern

A better understanding of why some children continue to mumble specific words past preschool is the goal of an assistant professor in the College of Education at New Mexico State University.

Deborah Rhein, a faculty member in the Communication Disorders Program at New Mexico State University, instructs graduate students Leslie Wandemberg and Annie Tessar on how to conduct screenings for speech and language disorders. Rhein is currently researching an unusual speech pattern called intermittent unexplained unintelligibility. (NMSU photo by Beth Sitzler)

Deborah Rhein, a bilingual speech-language pathologist and faculty member in the Communication Disorders Program, said that while working in the public schools, she noticed a significant number of children on her caseload would occasionally mumble a single word or short phrase within an utterance. She said about 10 percent of the students who only speak one language and about 20 percent of the English Language Learners displayed this unusual speech. She calls this unusual speech pattern intermittent unexplained unintelligibility.

The speech differs from typical errors because it occurs infrequently and usually happens during an utterance. It can't be explained or predicted by a typical developmental process, and the mumble is uttered in such a way that it can't be transcribed by a speech pathologist.

"I want to find out what this might be and why it happens," Rhein said. "It appears that such productions are typical in preschool-aged children, but it is unusual for an older child, even a first-grader, to continue to do this. I also want to know why it appears more frequently in the children who are acquiring English."

Rhein said she thinks this unusual speech pattern in school-age English speakers may be related to a weakness in the phonological memory of the child. She thinks the child might know the meaning, or semantics, of the target word and know the part of speech, such as a verb or noun, but doesn't know or remember how to say the word. She said that poor phonological memory has been associated with difficulties in learning to read.

To document that these speech productions are not uncommon, she surveyed 123 speech pathologists from across the country, working in the public school system. Seventy-six percent said they had observed the intermittent unexplained unintelligibility. Sixty-eight of the respondents reported observing the unusual speech in children ages 3-5; 67 reported observing it in children ages 6-9; and 32 reported observing it in children ages 10-12.

"This confirmed my own observations that the intermittent unexplained unintelligibility was seen most frequently in younger children and supports my view that these productions are probably normal for preschool children," Rhein said. "But it also makes me wonder, at what point is it no longer within developmental norms for a child to do this? When a preschool child produces an utterance that contains one word like this, we don't even notice it, but if an 8 year-old child or an adult were to produce an utterance with a mumbled word, we would immediately notice it."

Rhein said she wants to compile data on children of different ages who display these productions, with the goal of providing another indicator of children who are at risk for speech, language and reading/writing disorders. She said it is important to understand the unusual speech pattern, because poor phonological memory can lead to other problems, including reading problems, in native speakers. She said being able to spot a child with a disorder before they fail in school is not only helpful for the child, but also is cost efficient because it reduces the need for specialists later on.

"If we can establish developmental norms for native speakers, we will be able to easily spot kids early on that need help, before they begin to fail," Rhein said.

She also plans to explore how the speech pattern develops in English Language Learners and monitor the productions in both English and their native language. She explains that it is often difficult for a speech-language pathologist to determine if an English Language Learner has a language disorder or is just having trouble acquiring the new language.

"You would think it would be as easy as testing the child in their native language to determine a language disorder, but it has been shown that children whose native language has not been supported in their environment might test poorly in that native language," Rhein said. "This is known as language loss."

She said intermittent unexplained unintelligibility might occur more frequently in English learners because when someone is learning a new language, the meaning and the part of speech in the first and second languages are often the same, but the production of the word varies.

Rhein said the pattern in an English learner may not always be evidence of a problem, especially if the productions occur at the onset of exposure to the second language, but if the productions continue in both the new and native language, it could be an indicator of a language disorder.

"There is some evidence that children's speech sound system may not be fully established, or stable, so it is possible that the burden of acquiring a new representation of how to produce a word in a new language may have a detrimental effect on the child's memory of the word in the native language, at least at first," she said. "Eventually, if there is no language learning problem, this difficulty should go away. If it persists, in both languages, it could serve as an indicator of a general language learning problem."

Along with conducting a survey, Rhein has published a report of two children who displayed this speech pattern in "Perspectives on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations."

Rhein is looking for 10 subjects, children ages 9 and older who are native English speakers who display intermittent unexplained unintelligibility in their speech. She will hold free screenings in January and February for possible subjects.

Once accepted into the study, subjects will be given several hours of assessments and will each be paid $90. The funding for this work was the result of a mini-grant Rhein obtained from the College of Education at NMSU. If you are interested in the study, contact Rhein at drhein@nmsu.edu.