LSU Researchers Receive $1.8 Million to Study Louisiana Dialects

Posted on: 18/01/2010

Louisiana is a cultural melting pot. Because of the state’s unique DNA a combination of the history, politics and geographical location everything about “The Boot” is a little bit different, right down to the way Louisiana natives speak. But current speech pathology tests don’t take into account dialects of individual Louisiana parishes, and as a result, children with speech and language impairments might not be getting the help they need.

Worse yet, some children may be considered speech- or language-impaired when in actuality, they happen to speak what’s known as a non-traditional form of the English language. With support in the form of $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, Janna Oetting and her colleagues at LSU are setting out across Louisiana to help solve this problem.

Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders Oetting, together with LSU colleagues Michael Hegarty of the Department of English and Janet McDonald of the Department of Psychology, plans to conduct field studies in several rural Louisiana parishes, including Assumption, Iberville, St. James and West Baton Rouge, beginning in January 2010.

“We’ll be working with kindergartners because the basic structure of human grammar is established by age four, and we want to start the process at the start of a child’s elementary school experience,” said Oetting. “About 30 percent of Louisiana fourth-grade students are not reading at age appropriate levels, so if we can do something to impact that statistic, we definitely are ready to step up to the plate.”

Oetting’s group, which includes graduate students from LSU’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders, Linguistics and Psychology, looks at how the mind handles language and how children acquire it, specifically regarding abstract grammar rules, such as verb phrasing. The group will focus on children with “Specific Language Impairment,” or SLI, which refers to children who have no contributing health factors but who nevertheless lag in the mastery of language, measured against linguistic timetables.

“Nationally, only 29 percent of children with Specific Language Impairment are identified and receive any support or assistance; we believe the rate is even lower in Louisiana because of issues related to the understudy of our dialects,” said Oetting. “This is troubling because we also know that close to 60 percent of kindergarteners with Specific Language Impairment will present with a reading impairment in fourth grade. Standard English speakers are identified much younger and much more often. In areas of Louisiana and elsewhere where nontraditional dialects are spoken, the fear is that we’re missing lots of children.”

The goal of this grant is to develop tools essential for language development that are specifically tailored to several Louisiana dialects, language subsets that include African American English, Southern White English, Creole, Cajun and any combination thereof.

“Dialects can be a taboo topic, which is part of the reason that there’s a lack of diagnosis and treatment,” said Oetting. “What we’re looking at is the concept of impairment within the context of different dialects of English. We all speak differently. We don’t want tests that falsely identify children as impaired just because they speak differently than the baseline language on which the test was modeled, but we also don’t want children who need services not identified because their language weaknesses were incorrectly identified as a dialect difference.”

According to Oetting, speech language pathologists who work with standard English speakers have hundreds of tools at their fingertips for evaluation, support and education. But clinicians who serve non-traditional dialect speakers have far fewer to guide their decision making processes.

Using videotaped stories and interactive computer games made in their research lab, the team’s first goal is to better document the variety of dialects that are spoken by Louisiana children. Then, the group will proceed, identifying clinical markers of children with SLI within each of these dialects. The end goal is to develop tools that can be used in Louisiana classrooms to assist speech language pathologists in methods of assessment and treatment and educators in methods of language testing and teaching.

“People around the country and the world think of Louisiana as a rich and valuable place to study languages,” said Oetting. “It’s similar to the way that people view us as a rich and valuable place to study our natural resources, such as petroleum. But people are the real resources and drivers of Louisiana, and we’re doing everything we can to support and assist the children of this state as they progress through school and into adulthood.”

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