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Is Sequence Learning Key to Language Development? Researchers Will Seek Answer
Callier Center Team Receives $3 Million NIH Grant for New Study

A University of Texas at Dallas researcher is pursuing answers that could lead to earlier diagnosis and enhanced treatment of developmental language disorder (DLD), which affects approximately 7% of 5-year-old children and has long-term negative academic, social and economic outcomes.

Dr. Lisa Goffman, the Nelle C. Johnston Chair in Communication Disorders in Children in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, received a five-year, $3 million federal grant to pursue a new theory on an underlying mechanism of this impairment in language development.

The Callier Clinical Research Center, a component of the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, will provide the critical infrastructure for the grant (1R01DC018410), awarded to Goffman and her colleague at the University of Arizona, Dr. LouAnn Gerken, by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The Callier Clinical Research Center will allow Goffman, whose work has been continuously funded by the NIH for the past 25 years as she has studied language, speech and motor learning in children with DLD, to translate her findings to a clinical trial.

She and Gerken, professor of psychology and cognitive science, will investigate whether a child’s slower learning of sequential patterns is linked to DLD.

“Our research may provide both earlier predictors and more direct interventions to address a core problem in DLD,” she said. “The earlier you adjust a child’s environment, the more plastic their brain is, the more effective interventions are.”

Examining Heart of DLD

Children with DLD show a persistent underperformance in language skills relative to age where no known biomedical condition is present. It can manifest as impairment in speech sounds, vocabulary, grammar and conversation. Research from Goffman’s lab has shown that these children have broader learning difficulties that also affect cognition and motor skills.

“We now think the underlying problem is in learning complicated patterns or sequences. Learning sound patterns in words and grammar in sentences requires complex rules that are particularly challenging for children with DLD,” Goffman said.

“Children with DLD are not supposed to have motor problems, but they do. Our earlier work involves motor skill learning; deficits are cross-domain and include motor components. In the current project, we are moving from broad motor skills back into the heart of the disorder: production of words and sentences that have different rules and patterns.”

Dr. Lisa Goffman, the Nelle C. Johnston Chair in Communication Disorders in Children in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Lisa Goffman.

In another NIH-funded project that began in 2017, Goffman and her colleagues are conducting a broader series of studies of several types of sequential pattern learning in children with DLD. That ongoing research suggests that some children’s struggles with sequential language issues coincide with deficits in learning other complex motor patterns, such as the rhythmic structure of music and the production of hand motions to produce gestures. Researchers concluded that these diverse issues stem from a root problem with sequential patterns.

“Children with DLD are not supposed to have motor problems, but they do,” Goffman said. “Our earlier work involves motor skill learning; deficits are cross-domain and include motor components. In the current project, we are moving from broad motor skills back into the heart of the disorder: production of words and sentences that have different rules and patterns.”

Angela Shoup BS’89, MS’92, PhD’94, executive director of the Callier Center, described the collaboration between Goffman and Gerken as having important implications for the development of new treatment options to facilitate learning and generalization in children with DLD.

Groundwork for New Study

The theory behind the new research stems from the long-understood finding that babies can learn any language they are exposed to, while adults must work much harder to learn another language. Recent research has dug into the reasons behind that difference.

“Dr. Gerken found that babies less than a year old could learn a simple sound pattern rule,” Goffman explained. “They learn that specific sounds go together; for example, B and V go with G and D, or P and F go with K and T. If you let babies listen to just four words that fit this pattern, they learn the pattern and can generalize it to new words. Adults cannot learn that way — they learn different, more complicated patterns and rules.

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“So that conversation about what babies can do that adults can’t set the stage for our collaboration. Can every preschooler do this? If not, is that what’s behind a child’s developmental language disorder?”

Goffman hypothesizes that children with DLD try to memorize language via brute force methods instead of analyzing patterns and rules.

“The rule learning that babies can do is very important for learning grammar,” she said. “As an example, children need to learn the sounds used to express present and past tense, as in the sentences: He jumped; they jump; she pretended. Children with DLD have remarkable difficulties learning grammatical rules. We think these difficulties have origins in the sound pattern learning that is so easy for babies.

“If we’re right about sequence learning being as important as we think it is, it does provide some real material for the substance of an intervention.”

The new study will be conducted at the Callier Clinical Research Center on the UT Dallas Richardson campus, which Goffman said “makes this work possible because of the interface between clinical programs and research participants, allowing us to conduct a large clinical trial.”

Shoup concurred: m“The Callier Clinical Research Center has the infrastructure to support translational studies, including research facilities and a research registry for subject recruitment.”

Goffman called particular attention to the research registry component, which was initiated under former Callier executive director Dr. Thomas Campbell and is now getting off the ground under Shoup.

“The research registry allows for a seamless interface between Callier’s clinical and child care services and the state-of-the-art research conducted in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing,” Goffman said. “This is a brand-new and absolutely unique opportunity to conduct large-scale studies that have high potential to provide new and effective assessment and intervention practices.”

Goffman said that a significant advancement in the understanding of DLD could improve countless lives.

“Children with DLD are often not identified, and treatment approaches are limited,” she said. “Increased research and clinical efforts to improve the lives of these children are imperative.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu.