Contextualising child speech development in Africa

The acquisition of language is a critical part of a child’s cognitive and social development. Language allows a child to communicate and express themselves, to develop and maintain relationships and to learn. Delayed language acquisition has been linked with learning disabilities, anxiety in children, behavioural problems and other social difficulties. Early identification and intervention in delayed language acquisition is critical to help children fulfill their potential. However, language acquisition happens differently in different languages. In order for speech-language therapists to be able to accurately identify delays in language development they need to have access to the norms of child language acquisition in a specific language, and in Africa, this information is not available.

SADiLaR’s Child Language Development node, based at Stellenbosch University, is working to fill this enormous gap in our knowledge around the development of language in Southern Africa, beginning with an inter-university collaboration focusing on development of Communicative Development Inventories (CDIs) for all South African languages.

“Different languages have completely different structures which result in children acquiring those languages in different ways,” explains Mikateko Ndhambi, a lecturer in speech-language pathology at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University who is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Cape Town in child language acquisition in Xitsonga, her mother tongue. “Even in South Africa’s Bantu languages, we see wide variation in what words and what grammatical elements children first acquire.”

CDIs are effectively a parent report tool that can be used to measure a child’s language development. The CDI can be used to gather a large sample of children’s language that provides information on the average child’s language acquisition in a specific language. CDIs measure language development from 8 to 30 months and are good overall indicators of communicative development.

“If a speech-language therapist does not have the correct information for typical development in the language of the child they are trying to assess, they are likely to over-diagnose or under-diagnose the child, and interventions will not be appropriate,” explains Associate Professor Heather Brookes, a linguist and director of the Child Language Development Node.

There are CDIs for over 100 languages worldwide, but none for any of the languages commonly spoken in southern Africa, including the better-resourced languages of English and Afrikaans.

“There is,” explains Brookes, “a different CDI for American English as opposed to British English. This means neither of these will be applicable to South African English.”

Addressing this gap, to develop the norms which will serve as the basis of the linguistically and culturally appropriate CDIs for our 11 official languages, is a herculean task which involves researchers from over ten institutions, with a dedicated principal investigator for each language. It is also a multidisciplinary effort in that the work requires the expertise of speech therapists, linguists and developmental psychologists.

“Each field has a very important contribution to this project,” says Ndhambi. “The developmental psychologists provide the bigger developmental picture, because language acquisition does not work in isolation. The linguists provide the understanding of the fundamentals of a language, particularly the structures that will influence a child’s language acquisition. And then of course the speech-language therapist brings their knowledge of child speech and language, what are the common disorders, issues or delays.”

Much work has already been done in South Africa towards the development of these CDIs. The group has successfully harmonised the South African languages to cover the same areas for measurement where appropriate. They have developed a family background questionnaire for the different languages to assess how the child’s environment might impact their language development. The next step then is to begin to conduct field research where approximately 2300 families in each language will be interviewed to ascertain typical development norms.

“While we still have a long way to go, we are pleased with how far we have come,” says Brookes. “It was a huge team effort driven largely by the speech-language therapists. Their commitment to this project and ensuring the practical, on the ground, impact of it, has been fantastic.”

Building the southern African network

As well as the South African CDIs, the group is also committed to expanding this work across the southern African region. This is partly why, in June 2022, the node organised a workshop and meeting at the Southern African Linguistics and Applied Linguistics Society (SALALS) conference which took place in Potchefstroom.

Speakers at the workshop addressed the various challenges and opportunities with regards to child language development in Africa in particular. This included a presentation on the development of CDIs in Senegal, the experiences of a speech therapist working in multilingual and multicultural environment so common in Africa, and the challenges children face when exposed to multiple languages. One key presentation by Anne Baker of Stellenbosch University and the University of Amsterdam, spoke about the consequences of unidentified and unmet language needs and the need for accessible tools for language assessment at schools.

“This workshop,” says Ndhambi, who was instrumental in organising the event, “was to bring together those conducting research in early child language development to see what is being done, what needs to be done, and where there is space for future collaboration.”

“The reality is that developing the necessary norms and CDIs for child language acquisition to be properly assessed in Africa is such an enormous task, researchers cannot do it on their own, as we have learned, it requires large teams of experts,” says Brookes.

“The goal of the workshop was to encourage researchers in this field to not only join our collaboration, which we would love, but also to connect researchers to form their own collaborations, so we can team up to begin to address the gaps in research to better understand and respond to early childhood language development, with significant positive impacts on the socio-economic status of the region.”