Language Disabilities and Social Relationships
The speech of many students with learning disabilities contrasts sharply with the excellent conversational skills of their peers. For example, one study asked children to teach the experimenter how to play checkers. The learning disabled used more sentences than the control children but conveyed less information. Their vocabulary was smaller, repetitive, and less meaningful, and their sentences were shorter and grammatically simpler. They had difficulty describing the game's objectives and strategies, often isolating one aspect of the game to highlight. When the experimenter asked for clarification, the children frequently simply repeated what they had just said, instead of expanding on it. On the whole, these children preferred to demonstrate the game rather than to verbalize strategies. Frequently they got sidetracked and played checkers by themselves, totally ignoring the person they were supposed to instruct.
Youngsters who are learning disabled often can't adjust their language to the age level of the person they are speaking to—using baby talk with an adult, for example. Nor can they adapt to what's just been said or to the topic, often interjecting non sequitors or saying the same thing over and over again. They have trouble interpreting and inferring from what others say, taking turns in conversation, and taking another's perspective. Their sentences are shorter and less grammatically complex, and they don't use intonation, eye contact, or body language effectively to convey meaning. They have a hard time with idioms (e.g., "keep your nose clean"), humor, and ambiguous sentences (e.g., "They fed her dog biscuits"). Those with word-finding problems are slow to choose their words and as a result have a problem maintaining conversations. Given these difficulties, it is not surprising that the conversations of children with LD are characterized by a high proportion of silence.
As listeners, children with learning disabilities are less likely to recognize that a situation calls for clarification, so they don't ask questions. When they do ask, their questions often don't achieve their purpose or they don't give the speaker a chance to respond: " ... and the substitute teacher we have—do you like her?—I don't—I mean, I really can't stand her because ... " (Mathinos, 1988, p. 442).
These students are well aware of their comprehension and conversational problems. As a result, they overestimate the speaker's ability to make sense. They shift responsibility for successful conversation to the speaker, whether with peers, adults, or even their own parents. As you might expect, they are not as persuasive as their peers and tend to give up their own viewpoints in favor of others'. It's easy to see how language disabilities can interfere with building friendships, peer acceptance, and self-image.
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