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Using Brain Imaging to Study Language Development

By Saloni Krishnan

Our ability to communicate with others is something we often take for granted. Yet, having language allows us to talk about the things we are experiencing, as well as what we have experienced in the past and what we want to happen in the future. Language gives us access to knowledge that others have, through conversations, reading, or even watching videos. Language allows us to seek support and tell others how we are feeling when we are feeling a bit lost or sad. Often it is only when we cannot communicate, such as in a country where everyone speaks a different language, that we start to appreciate how remarkable this ability is.

We tend to think that babies learn their native languages effortlessly, and new parents eagerly look forward to their child starting to speak. The first few weeks of a baby’s life are mainly marked by crying, with pleasant cooing sounds and babbling slowly emerging over the course of the first few months. In these months, children seem to spend all their time just “practicing” one or two sounds.

Most parents consider their child’s first word a milestone, representing a time when the child can start to make those around him or her clearly aware of their desires. And indeed, children have had to master a number of skills to get to this point in their development – they need to have heard and paid attention to the sounds of their language, learned that a particular set of sounds represents a concept, practiced the motor movements to make that specific set of sounds, and have the intention to communicate. Difficulties in any of these areas, such as hearing loss, can set this typical development off-course.

After the first word, a child’s spoken vocabulary seems to expand very quickly and they start to put together simple sentences. Even though their parents seem to follow their speech, it can be difficult for strangers to understand. Most of the time, this is because their ability to precisely control their mouth movements is still changing. These early years of language development are characterised by large variation in ability.

In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to predict whether a child will have ongoing language problems until they are about 5 years old. But towards the end of the primary school years, we expect that children will be able to build complex narratives, use advanced grammar, and enter a whole new world of language through reading.

When language development does not unfold typically, it’s concerning for both parents and teachers. Poor language ability has been linked to difficulties in other areas of development, such as academic achievement and mental health. Given the enormous value placed on communication skills in the job market, communication problems also have an impact on opportunities for employment. Poor language also seems to influence social skills and the development of friendships. However, despite the importance of spoken language skills, accessing support is not an easy task, as many support systems are overwhelmed and underfunded.

As a researcher, I am particularly interested in why some children have more difficulty acquiring language than others. An important aspect of language is its sequential nature – sounds, words and sentences follow on from each other in predictable ways. One theory is that children with developmental language disorders particularly struggle with learning sequences, especially when these sequences are habitual and internal. This is thought to be because the brain systems that support this type of learning work differently in those with language disorders. We are testing this theory in our study, the Brain Organisation in Language Development or BOLD study.

The question of whether these systems do function differently is an important one to answer. It would allow us to gain insight into how we should structure speech and language therapy, and assess what kind of learning and training programs might work best. As part of our study, we are designing online learning tasks that will allow us to investigate what might be the best ways for children with language disorders to learn new grammatical structures.

We are now recruiting for this study. Participating involves having an MRI scan (usually as children watch a movie, or do some simple tasks), and completing behavioural tasks to look at reasoning and language ability. If you are a parent of a child with language problems (between 10-15 years of age), please get in touch with us! We can find times that work with your schedule, as we work on weekends/ school holidays, and we also pay for travel expenses.


You can find out more at boldstudy.wordpress.com, or email the department directly at bold.study@psy.ox.ac.uk.

You can also follow the department’s work on Twitter @ox_bold.

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