Throwback Pub (2015): How our language may affect their language

The use of telegraphic speech with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), by both parents and clinicians, is common. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Does it affect language development?

First: What exactly is telegraphic speech anyway? Telegraphic speech is a normal part of a child’s linguistic development. It is the use of primary content words, such as: ball go, daddy jump, want cup. Many intervention approaches for our clients with autism explicitly incorporate the use of telegraphic speech for teaching language, so they can be exposed to telegraphic speech more frequently than other children (Venker et al. 2015, p. 1735).

This study tested children at 3.5 and 4.5 years old by watching interactions with their parents during play. They focused on how many determiners (articles, possessive pronouns) were omitted from noun phrases in which they were needed. For example, “Eat the cookie” became “Eat cookie.” The parents in this study omitted these determiners at varying levels—some often, others rarely. The researchers measured mean length utterance (MLU) and number of different words (NDW) from each interaction and compared them. 

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Here’s what they found: The number of determiners that parents omitted from their speech predicted the diversity and complexity of the child’s language skills (which was evident in the measurements of NDW). Therefore, it is possible that using telegraphic speech could be detrimental to the development of a child’s lexicon. Using grammatically incorrect forms with children overall may possibly slow their language processing and limit opportunities to imitate  grammatically correct forms. However, do note—this study did not determine cause and effect. It could be that parents’ language doesn’t cause the children’s language, but that the relationship is bidirectional. The authors pose another possible explanation: that, “…parents who use higher levels of telegraphic speech may also exhibit other behaviors that negatively affect children’s language learning,” and this is only one of many possible explanations. 

This guest post was written by Lauren Bender-Stringham, a graduate student at Clarion University

Venker, C. E., Bolt, D. M., Meyer, A., Sindberg, H., Ellis Weismer, S., & Tager-Flusber, H. (2015). Parent telegraphic speech use and spoken language in preschoolers with ASD. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58,1733–1746.