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Language development

Tackling inequality one word at a time

Published on: 6 February 2020

Experts put spotlight on language development in Arabic speaking countries

Academic and social disadvantage

A new project led by Newcastle University will help identify pre-schoolers in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank with delayed speech, in a bid to reduce academic and social disadvantage.

Dr Ghada Khattab and Dr Cristina McKean from the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, will bring together educators, linguists, speech and language therapists and paediatricians in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank, for the four-year project.

In the first few years of life children vary considerably in their language and speech development. Research has shown that children who have difficulties using and understanding words and sentences which persist to the age of four years are likely to have worse life chances than children whose language develops normally. They are likely to have poorer outcomes in education, health, employment and well-being – making early intervention essential. 

Life chances

“The foundations for a child’s life are laid between birth and when they are four-years-old,” says Dr Khattab, a Senior Lecturer in Phonetics and Phonology, who is leading the project. “The evidence shows us that the earlier you can identify language delay in a small child and begin to work with them to address it, the better their prospects are.

“However, little focus on language development in pre-schoolers is evident in these countries, leading to later detection of language delay- but this reduces the chances of success. The aim of our project is to work with professionals from various fields of early childhood development to produce tools which will support pre-schoolers during the time period that is crucial for intervention.

“Long-term, this will help to address educational and social inequalities in this region.

Working with researchers from the University of Plymouth, the project will also look at the needs of refugee children in these countries. The team will work with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) involved in refugee education and with the Ministries of Health and Education in order to raise the profile of the importance of early language and help shape policy.

Making a difference

A key part of the project will be to address the lack of tools available in Arab countries to assess pre-schoolers. The team will adapt and standardise the Communicative Development Inventory (CDI) - the gold standard for assessing vocabulary and language development - across the Arab world and make it freely available on open access platforms.

They will also be looking at children’s home lives – how they learn there and how they are exposed to language. They will also investigate the effects of multilingualism, varying childcare provision and living in refugee communities.

Professor Caroline Floccia
, Co-investigator on the project from the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology, said: “We have been working for a number of years on tools to assess early Arabic learning. Because Arabic is not one uniform language, we have tailored the CDI to work across a total of 17 different dialects, but until now we have not had the opportunity to test this on a large scale. 

“This project will allow us to do that across national and linguistic boundaries. And by putting these tools into the hands of people on the ground, we will ensure our work is making a difference.”

Dr McKean added: “Our aim is to make a difference to the life of individuals from a very early age, influencing their socialisation, education, and life chances. We also aim to enhance the development of the professionals who work with pre-school children, influencing policy and public awareness of this important work.”

The £1,775,000 project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund.


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