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UMass linguistics professor gives European speech on children speech dialect

A University of Massachusetts professor delivered a lecture in Europe recently that summarized a four-year, multimillion dollar research program to determine whether a child has a speaking disability, or is actually just speaking with a different version of the language. 

Thomas Roeper, a UMass linguistics professor, traveled to London to present the lecture to a European Union-sponsored conference titled “Let the Children Speak,” from Jan.20 to Jan. 22.

During his talk, Roeper discussed the cooperative work that was done between a multitude of disciplines, nations and institutions of higher education.

The study began eight years ago with the brainchild of Roeper and his colleagues, Harry Seymour, a now-retired professor of communication disorders at UMass, and Jill de Villiers, a psychology professor at Smith College. They developed the test in English, which de Villiers described as a “linguistically fair test that is neutral to dialects.”

 “It evaluates children without a dialectic prejudice,” Roeper explained.

A prime example is African-American children, who are often misdiagnosed with speech disorders.

“But actually,” said Roeper, “they’re just speaking an African-American dialect of English.”

The new test removes such an obstacle by using the very basics of language and sentence structure.

“It improves the nature of testing for communication disorders,” said de Villiers.

The trio began to present their findings nationally, and were eventually approached by a representative of the European Union.

Over the past four years, the European Union has funded a multimillion dollar study based off of Roeper, de Villiers, and Seymour’s original work that now encompasses language acquisition in over 25 European dialects.

In London, Roeper summarized the project from its origin in front of a diverse crowd.

“The organizers did a good job,” Roeper said. “There were ambassadors from 20 different countries, and members of the educational hierarchy in England.”

“There were parents and teachers, and even a grown person with a speaking disability,” he added. “I was really impressed.”

While the original three are no longer directly involved with the project, Roeper was well-versed in the direction that the EU-sponsored research was heading, which included studying the acquisition of certain dialects like ‘Roma’ (traditionally a gypsy language) and adapting the original English version of the test to fit in with a score of other languages.

There are certainly promising results. 

“The whole idea is a good one,” said de Villiers. “It really showcases the cooperation between disciplines like linguistics, communication disorders, psychology and education.”

UMass student Stacey Hronowski, an English major, said she had a speech impediment when she was younger.

 “I couldn’t say my s’s – and my name is Stacey. It was horrible.” she said.

“I think that it’s great if they can help anyone who has any kind of speech disorder,” she added, “but I also think that while dialects are wonderful, and show off diversity, if it makes it hard for children to be understood, then the test should point that out.”

Other students were also supportive of Roeper’s work.

“Well, I don’t know much about it, but I think it’s great,” said UMass student Katrina Turner, an English major who said she has taken a linguistics class in the past. “Anything that decreases prejudice is great.”

Megan Valcour can be reached at mvalcour@student.umass.edu.

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