New research into child language acquisition has made strong links between cognitive skills and language learning, challenging long-term beliefs that children develop language skills independently of cognitive function relating to abilities such as spatial awareness.
Professor Mila Vulchanova, who is head of the language laboratory at the Norwegian University of Technology, conducted the study over several years – challenging ‘linguistic assumptions’ and demonstrating clear correlation between language development and cognitive skills.
Cognitive skills are a collective term for the ability to concentrate, retain information, learn and perceive our environment, as well as logical reasoning and problem solving.
Working in partnership with the University of Melbourne, Vulchanova and a team of researchers from NTNU and the University of Oslo based their work on data from the largest cohort study conducted in Norway and conducted a series of verbal and non-verbal comparisons. Giving the team a large body of data to work with, The Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa), facilitated by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, is one of the world’s largest health surveys, with data from 114 500 children, 95 000 mothers and 75 000 fathers.
Focusing on language comprehension and development in typical and atypical scenarios, Vulchanova’s work analyzed and catalogued language acquisition and difficulties, using examples of language development from 500 8-year old participants.
Results found that three main cognitive factors including: Verbal Cognition, Processing Speed and Memory – and additionally and Non-Verbal Cognition, contributed significantly to individual variation in language abilities.
“We analyzed extensive data on the language and cognitive status of children with language difficulties and compared them with children who have typical language development. The analyses show that the severity of the language difficulties can also be predicted based on cognitive markers. These are discoveries that pave new paths for research in this field,” said Vulchanova.
The balance between verbal and non-verbal cognitive skills in relation to language skills, is a field that has been relatively unexplored in the past and this study acknowledges scope for more research. Additionally, it is not well yet known which cognitive measurements and methods best predict the severity of language disorders in children.
With their findings, the team stress the importance of early intervention in delayed or disordered language acquisition and suggest the help of a speech therapist when necessary.
Vulchanova concluded “Our findings support the importance of measuring both verbal and non-verbal cognitive skills. In this way, we can identify which dimensions are affected and require special attention in children with language difficulties,”
“Our findings also point to the potential for training cognitive skills as a strategy to support language skills,” she said.