Hollywood and Speech-Language Pathology


It’s that time of year again! Oscar weekend! The various accents actors/actresses can produce can make or break their character’s success. And who can actors turn to for accent modification? Yep, Speech-Language Pathologists! Behind the scenes, coaching can be used to target 1 or 2 specific sounds (phonemes, remember those from my last post?) in a particular language. By modifying the way those couple of sounds are produced by the actor, a different accent can be formed. An array of people from medical professionals to businesspeople may also want to seek accent reduction therapy to improve their communication skills.

Prior to therapy, an evaluation is done on the current state of speech, looking at the person‘s sound pronunciation and the stress, rhythm, and intonation of speech they use. According to ASHA, SLPs might choose to evaluate by having the client read words, sentences, and paragraphs, and will listen to your conversational speech. Sometimes an accent will appear stronger in one of these scenarios than the others so it is important to observe all of them.

I’ve always found accents to be interesting. It is important to note that accents are speech DIFFERENCES and should not be considered speech or language DISORDERS.  ASHA’s definition of an accent is “the unique way that speech is pronounced by a group of people speaking the same language.” Therefore, everyone speaks with an accent. You may not think you have one if you speak in a similar manner to those around you, but in the end that’s what makes it an accent.

Accents are typically categorized one of two ways. The first is regional accents. For example, someone from Boston, Massachusetts will pronounce things differently than someone from Florida.  Same goes for people in Queens and Long Island. Even though they may live within an hour of each other, they can sound considerably different. The second is foreign accents. A person raised speaking English will sound different than someone who was raised speaking Italian and learned English as an adult, or even in late childhood.  

So the next time you watch a movie, pay attention to the accents. Does the actor sound much different than they would if doing an interview out of character?  Enjoy the Oscars this Sunday!

Form, Content, Use– Repeat.

These are the three components of language, umbrella topics so to speak, which comprise what we use to create a message. Form includes phonology (rules about speech sounds), morphology (small units of meaning within words), and syntax (word order). Content includes semantics (meaning of words). And Use includes pragmatics (rules for communication through language). Throughout the semester we will go into more depth about each of these subcategories, but for today let’s start with phonology.

This is where those lovely phonics books we did as kids come into play! A phoneme is the smallest linguistic unit of sound that can signal a change in meaning. When Speech-Language Pathologists write out these sounds they put them in between slashes called virgules so they do not get mistaken for English letters which get put in quotation marks. For example, /k/ is the “k” sound at the beginning of the word “cat” or at the beginning of the word “kite”.  There are a total of 43 phonemes or distinct sounds in English. And just like I mentioned in my earlier post, “Vowels in IPA,” it is important to remember that some sounds can be represented by more than one English letter. The /f/ sound is spelled/ represented differently in the words “fish,” “phone,” and “muffin.”


The top part reads "you wish you could read this shirt" It is written using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) which uses phonemes, not letters.

The top part reads “you wish you could read this shirt”. It is written using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) which uses phonemes, not English letters. This system is used by SLPs to record exactly what their patient said and how the words sound when produced. It can be a great tool when looking for patterns of language use or misuse.


How to be a Successful Conversationalist

There are those people (or at least one person) in our lives who are fantastic story tellers, captivating our imaginations with every word.  There are also those people who are terrible at getting their point across. You know, that person that makes you cringe a little when the phone rings or you see that tiny speech bubble on Facebook turn red. Having a conversation shouldn’t be exhausting! There is a formula to having a pleasant, meaningful conversation with someone, and I’m confident that if you become aware of these 4 simple points you can make significant improvements.


Grice’s Cooperation Principle

  1. Quantity– contributors shouldn’t provide too little or too much information
  2. Quality– governed by truthfulness- aka: not lying
  3. Relation– should be relevant to the topic being discussed- try not to be constantly random
  4. Manner– each participant should be reasonably direct


Herbert Paul Grice was a philosopher who characterized conversations as “a form of cooperative activity.” This is true, you need two or more people to have a conversation. The 4 maxims or “rules of conduct” listed above are how Grice explained what’s to be expected from a conversation. Whether people are actually following these is a different story (and if it’s unclear whether they are or not, the conversation is hard to follow).

The principle of Manner is the maxim that is the least obvious, so let’s briefly discuss that. Its basic focus is organization. For example, if you are prompted to tell your life story, the proper thing to do is go in order from as far back as is suitable, up to the present day. You wouldn’t say, “Well, I went to high school in New York, and when I was five I became a big sister…” because that makes your listener jump around too much. You also seem confused yourself, as if you can’t remember things so you just say them as they come to you! The order information is presented to the listener will cause that listener to make inferences. A good example of this is the following:

“She graduated from college and got married.” vs. “She got married and graduated from college.”

My assumption is that these events happened in the order they are mentioned, so in the first sentence the woman graduated college prior to getting married.

Following these 4 maxims will make your conversations run much smoother. Let me know if being more aware of these helps you out! I’m always ready to read your comments!



Technology Empowers Life


We all know that technology is a powerful force in our lives today, nearly impossible to avoid. Kids continue to astonish us by successfully navigating their parents’ smartphones and tablets without any formal instruction. It is precisely this ease of use that is one component of technology helping patients gain communicative ability.

There are two major categories of communication devices patients can use. The first is Augmentative communication, which supplements speech. This would be for patients who have some language already but still need assistance. The second kind is Alternative communication which replaces speech altogether. The individual who would use this is nonverbal.

Microsoft’s new TV ad featured during Super Bowl XLVIII demonstrates just how important technology is. The part that caught my eye was technology’s ability “to give voice to the voiceless.” Steve Gleason is a former NFL player who is living with ALS. One job an SLP must do is work with their patient to provide a personalized device. Not all devices will be successful for a particular person since each individual has their own challenges they face. The ad shows Gleason using a high-tech aided alternative communication device so he can communicate with his son. Since he is nonverbal and also has extremely limited physical capabilities, Gleason’s device allows him to use a scanning technique. He controls what the computer verbalizes based on where his eye gaze goes on the screen.

Below are both the Super Bowl commercial and a second video explaining Steve Gleason’s inspiring story about re-gaining some independence using this communicative technology.


Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they have to be disconnected from the people around them. Everyone has the right to have their own voice heard.  


Can You Hear Me Now? Good.


Hearing begins to develop during the second trimester at about 18 weeks gestation. By the third trimester, the fetus responds to auditory stimulation. This is why by the time babies are born they have had extensive access to the general rhythm and intonation of the language in their environment, and therefore show a preference for their mother’s voice. Yep. Mom is the favorite, it’s science!

Hearing is essential for speech recognition and comprehension, which is why it is a concern for SLPs. The Newborn Hearing Screening is administered so any hearing impairment can be detected.  If hearing loss goes undetected, the child can fall behind their same aged peers in the areas of language, cognitive, and social skills.

Not every state mandates Newborn Hearing Screenings. Unfortunately, this means that some newborns leave the hospital with undetected hearing loss. Only 95% of babies are screened within 1 month of birth. The screenings are not painful for the baby at all, and can even be performed while the baby is asleep. The video below shows how the screenings are conducted.



As the video points out, the screening test done in the hospital soon after birth can only detect hearing loss at the 35 dB (decibel) level.  Here is a list of the different levels of hearing loss that can be found:

26-40 dB = mild loss

41-55 dB = moderate loss

56-70 dB = moderately severe loss

71-90 dB = severe loss

91+ dB = profound loss


So this means that the hospital screening does not have the capability of detecting mild hearing loss. This is why a supplementary hearing test should be administered especially if there is a family history of hearing loss.

Speech and Language Development in Elementary School


The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) website is a fantastic resource, not only for SLPs and SLP students, but for parents as well. It provides information for both children and adults on topics such as hearing and balance, speech, language, and swallowing.

Below is a link to ASHA’s page discussing the typical course of speech and language development throughout your child’s elementary school years. Clicking on a specific grade level will bring you to a listing of listening, speaking, reading, and writing milestones for that grade level.


I believe reading through these lists will help parents understand what the “right” stages are in development for their children, especially if they are first time parents. Continuous growth in the areas of speech and language is crucial for successful communication throughout the child’s lifetime. Therefore, if you notice any delay you should talk to your child’s pediatrician to see if they recommend an evaluation by a Speech-Language Pathologist. Everyone has the right to be able to express his or herself and communicate effectively. SLPs help in this learning process.

Children are like Sponges

…they soak in information from the stimuli surrounding them. Between birth and 3 years of age, the human brain increases to 80% of its adult size. What a powerful fact. This is such a crucial point in development for children and therefore, it’s so important to foster their learning in this age period.  Healthy interactions between a child and his or her environment is essential to developing strong communication skills that will last a lifetime.

The main purpose of a child’s linguistic environment is to provide information about the language they will learn. And who provides this information? The people who surround the child in everyday life: parents, guardians, babysitters, siblings, friends, etc.

Motherese is a term used to describe the way people (often mothers) speak when that speech is directed toward their infant. They use a higher intonation in their voice and speak slower.  This infant-directed speech can help with communicative interaction but is not a necessity in the process of the infant’s language acquisition.

As long as there is language in the child’s environment, they will learn it without being explicitly “taught”.  Drilling your toddler to learn words won’t make them remember and repeat them any faster.  Also, children do not need to be rewarded or encouraged in language learning, nor do they need to be corrected when they say something incorrectly. I know this comes as a shock to some parents, but it’s true. Errors will naturally go away as the child gets older as long as people providing the input in the environment are using grammar correctly.  In all honesty, some errors go unnoticed (we’re only human), so correcting only the ones you DO manage to catch can send confusing messages to the child. What does help is modeling correct language. For example if the child says, “Can you take my shoes off my foots?” you can simply respond by saying, “Sure, I’ll take your shoes off your feet.” Over time they will recognize that feet is the correct term to use.


In order to identify atypical development, you need to know the timetable for typical development. Here is a list of age ranges for typical speech and language development:

  • Birth- 6 months: communication by smiling, crying, and babbling
  • 7 months- 1 year: babbling becomes differentiated
  • 1- 1.6 years: learns to say several words
  • 1.6- 2 years: word “spurt” begins
  • 2- 3 years: talks in sentences, vocabulary grows
  • 3+ years: vocabulary grows


Infants pick up on the words being used in their environment, so it is important for the adults to choose their words wisely. Once the word spurt begins they really start repeating everything.  During their preschool years, children acquire on average 4-8 new words every day! This means that by the time they are 6 years old they can have a vocabulary of 8,000-14,000 words! Reading to children at a very young age is a fantastic way to build vocabulary. It also helps to have discussions about what happens in the story, not just read cover to cover and put the book away. Reading can and should be an interactive experience, too.

Is Brazil Ready to Communicate at the Games?


The Brazilian government is trying to increase the number of English translations on public signage, but they aren’t doing this very successfully. In a recent opinion article in The New York Times, contributor Vanessa Barbara cites that the exit gates to a newly opened football stadium in Salvador, Brazil were labeled “Entrace.” So they basically mislabeled and misspelled the sign simultaneously. And did I mention this stadium was built specifically for Salvador to be one of the host cities of the 2014 World Cup?!  Barbara goes on to say, “Brazilians are so nervous about what will happen when tourists descend for the World Cup, we’re practically wishing we could call it all off.”

One barrier to communication can be language itself.  It is extremely difficult to communicate verbally when the two people do not share a common language.  This is normal to run into when you are a tourist in a foreign country.  It also raises an interesting question for a monolingual speaker of English such as myself: Do many countries in this world of ours have adults who are proficient in the English language?

The most recent edition of the Education First English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) ranks 60 countries around the world according to the number of adults in those respective countries who can proficiently speak English.  The adults took English tests in 2012, and the results were analyzed to create the updated rankings.  Data was collected from nearly 5 million adults over the past six years.  The overview of rankings can be found here at the EPI website.

photo credit to NY Times

The English language has become a very important communication tool throughout our ever growing global economy. In the business world, it seems that knowing English is a huge advantage.  Brazil, whose official language is Portuguese, is currently ranked #38 and shows “low proficiency” at a score of 50.07 on the scale.  To give you some perspective, the #1 ranked country is Sweden with “very high proficiency” and a score of 68.69.  Actually, all the countries in the top 10 are European.  While Brazil’s proficiency levels have risen since the results of the previous edition of the EPI (up 2.80 points), I still do not think they are at a sufficient level to be prepared for the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.  I’m not trying to say English should be the norm or “standard” language, but worldwide events such as the World Cup do raise pragmatic issues.


What better way to learn about what communication is truly like in Brazil than by speaking to Brazilians? Thanks to Professor Fernandez I was able to communicate with two of her colleague’s students at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Marcus Valdares and Adriana Barbosa.  One of Marcus’s observations was that many people do speak English, but those that do are in an academic environment.  He has informed me that there are initiatives being put in place to teach English to people with jobs such as taxi drivers, servers, police officers and shopkeepers (hopefully in time for the influx of tourism expected due to the World Cup).

Adriana shared with me that there are a limited number of well instructed second language instructors in the public school system in Brazil, which she thinks is the main cause of the lack of English proficiency.

World Cup poster for Belo Horizonte, Brazil-one of the host cities for the games

World Cup poster for Belo Horizonte, Brazil
-one of the host cities for the games

She said something else that I found fascinating, “The upcoming World Cup seems to have boosted the business of English teaching. But to me, that is all. Business. Lots of schools popped up in the market but many are there only to benefit from the current ‘learn English fever.’” I do agree, unfortunately, that learning a second language has become a money maker more than it has become an educational interest or hobby. Just look at how well Rosetta Stone is doing! A major cause of people not learning any second language, not just English, IS money after all. According to Education First, “private tutorials with native English-speaking teachers cost 30 to 50 US dollars per lesson, more than 10% of what a minimum wage earner makes in a month. You try spending over 10% of your income on something you can live without.  Understandably, many people in the middle class just cannot afford it.  How horrible is that!

My hope is that the people in Brazil receiving English lessons for the purpose of training for the World Cup receive these lessons for free (or at least a sharp discount).  The major communication gaps outside the stadiums themselves need to be filled if Brazil wants their time as host to the games to go smoothly and be a pleasant experience for its visitors.  The government is definitely making an effort to get there.  There will always be some bridges to cross when it comes to communication across cultures so as long as everyone is patient and listens, the World Cup will be a great experience for all.


A special thank you to Adriana and Marcus for sharing what they know about this topic!

For a full discussion on the FIFA World Cup, visit Nick’s blog, Sports Weekly here!

Here is a link to the FIFA website

To read the New York Times article in its entirety, click here

Books Do Exist


I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving yesterday! In the shopping frenzy on this Black Friday I would like to remind everyone that books make fantastic gifts. Yes, paper books. There are so many to choose from that you will surely find a perfect match for the little one in your life if you take the time to look.

I’m a firm believer in the idea of Emergent Literacy.  This is concerned with the earliest phases of the development of literacy starting from the child’s birth and continuing through the conventional reading and writing processes.  In other words, it is NEVER too early to start reading to your baby.

Adaptability is such an important factor when choosing a story. The most will come out of a book if the story is one that can grow with the child.  To this day The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a favorite of mine. Certainly is a story that grows with you.  When I first got this book, I was too young to fully comprehend the story’s message. But that didn’t stop me from looking at the pictures, naming the things I saw, and making up my own story.  Then as I got older I began to appreciate the characters and their relationships.

You also need to find a book with a subject that will interest the child. No one wants to read about something they don’t like. They will be turned off to reading if all they talk about to everyone is basketball and someone gives them a story about football. Makes no sense.

A huge thank you is in order to my family who constantly read to me and with me when I was growing up.  I was always so excited to receive new books for Christmas or my birthday.  Providing an environment filled with books is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do to foster healthy development. Instilling a love of reading in young children will definitely put them on the path to a love of learning for the rest of their lives.  And you can’t put a price on that.

I would like to finish off with a quote that one of my professors shared with us. I found it to be a powerful one.

“The potential to achieve some level of literacy is present in every child, and the development of that potential depends almost entirely on the opportunities provided within the child’s supportive environment.”

– Koppenhaver et al 1991


What was your favorite childhood book? Was there a specific reason you liked it so much? Share in the comments section!



How Many Times…

Hi everyone! For my fellow college-goers, I hope the semester is going well! If you need a distraction from the stress of finals being around the corner (or are bored for some reason) this website is your answer: http://www.wordcount.org/main.php Make sure you really have time to waste, I was on this site for longer than I intended to be! Word junkies beware.

The “WordCount” site presents an interactive list of the 86,800 most frequently used English words. Isn’t that awesome! Be sure to leave me a comment if you find anything interesting! Sometimes I find myself saying a certain word multiple times in one day. Now if I felt like it I could visit this site and see if it actually is a high frequency word.  The rankings compare the words to the other words in the list. For example, Disney is word 10,817 on the list meaning that it is used less frequently than word 10,816 and more frequently than word 10,818.

I’m sorry to say that “Facebook” and “Google” have not yet made their way into the archive.  The compilation process doesn’t include word frequencies from the internet.

One trend I noticed while browsing is that lexically ambiguous words are ranked with a high frequency (low numbers on the scale).  This makes total sense because these words are used in multiple contexts, and therefore more often than a word with only one meaning.  For example, date is word 599. This could mean a date on the calendar, a night out, the person you’re going out with, or even a type of food.  On the other hand, the word camera is ranked 3426. It really only has one meaning.

Since the site is interactive you can search the archive list by either word or rank. Try it out and if you notice any trends in the word frequencies, feel free to share them! I’d love to hear what you find!

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