The ABC of Xhosa toddlers

11 July 2002
ASSOCIATE Professor Sandile Gxilishe of the Southern African Languages Department has recently returned from a trip to the US were he visited several leading universities, presenting and developing a groundbreaking study on the language development of Xhosa speaking toddlers, which he conducted with Professor Seppo Tuomi, a former UCT lecturer.

Part of his trip involved a collaborative study with Professor Katherine Demuth of the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Studies at Brown University in Providence. Gxilishe spent eight weeks in Demuth's lab learning how to analyse data cognitive data.

Gxilishe says his study is the first longitudinal study in an African language to be done from the onset of a child's first words.

"The reason for this type of research is that existing theories on language acquisition are focused on Indo-European language, especially English. In South Africa you find that the information on early language development relates mainly to Afrikaans and English, there is none on indigenous languages.

"To be able to diagnose language delays and disorders amongst Xhosa speaking children, we need to have normative data on normal language development and no such data exists for Xhosa language speaking children," he explains.

According to Gxilishe, normative data on normal language development is also needed to develop guidelines and procedures for speech therapists and educators. "A study of this nature would be invaluable to speech therapists in South Africa because, more often than not, Xhosa-speaking schools teachers will say that a child is not coping in their grade because the child does not speak well."

Gxilishe says that in such cases the problem may actually have its foundations in speech development, but because there is no yardstick for speech therapists to identify problems with Xhosa children's speech, the problem is often not solved.

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