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All my life, I have been fascinated by speech and language…. I remember at school one day our teacher showed us a picture of a cat on a mat…. “C, A, T makes cat”

After working as a speech and language therapist in the British National Health Service I started doing research which ended in 2002 as a PhD in linguistics at the University of Durham. I described some well-known patterns in children’s speech errors and some which had not been described before. I asked: Why do errors pattern the way they do? It is odd that they pattern at all. And I described what seemed to be a new therapy idea, based on possible words, rather than actual words, making use of the patterns which occur naturally in children’s speech.

More research has shown that this was in fact an update of thinking which started to develop in 1669. One aspect of this updating is with respect to those properties of speech and language which must have evolved to become aspects of the human genome, like the fact that in every human there are something like words with roughly alternating vowels and consonants and sentences with content words roughly alternating with forms with no generic content, like that in “I believe that you are mistaken.”

Noam Chomsky and others talk about what is often called ‘the logical problem of language acquisition’. But there is also, I believe, a corresponding problem in the acquisition of speech. And there is an over-arching question about how speech and language may have evolved in the human species.

In my treatment, I mostly try to hide the fact that I am trying to help a child to say something which he or she has not said before. Some small children are well aware of the fact that they need help. But to my way of thinking there no advantage in making this more evident than it already is. So unless a child actually asks for explicit feedback I prefer to congratulate them for whatever they say. If they don’t say things quite right I should have adjusted the task to make sure that the child’s effort was successful. Success is more motivating than failure.

I have four degrees, in sociology, in theoretical linguistics, in speech and language therapy, and my PhD investigating the relation between current linguistic theory and the range of incompetences that are heard in the clinic and from normally developing children. I try to use all of these degrees.

Developing one of the themes of my PhD, I am now researching how the evolution of the speech and language faculty in human beings bears on the different sorts of developmental disorder.

For family reasons I am learning British Sign Language.