'Iconic' words could help stroke patients recover language more quickly
Release Date 27 October 2015
Onomatopoeic words are easier for stroke patients to understand and say than normal words, new research from the University of Reading has found. These words could be used as a catalyst for stroke patients to recover their communication skills more quickly.
The study saw individuals with aphasia, a language disorder impairment caused by stroke, given a set of communication tasks. The researchers found that patients were able to produce and recognise onomatopoeic words, such as ‘clang' and ‘fizz', more easily than normal words, with up to a 20% improvement for some patients.
This is the first time onomatopoeic words, also called iconic words, have been investigated in aphasia. The results suggest that words that picture or represent their meaning are easier for people with aphasia to use, making them potential building blocks to kick-start their recovery when other words might be too difficult to work with initially.
Stroke affects around 150,000 people in the UK every year. A third of those will suffer aphasia, which causes life-changing language problems including the ability to read, take part in conversations and enjoy radio and television. Around half of people with mild difficulties will fully recover in the first six months, but only 10% of people with severe difficulties will make the same recovery. Rehabilitation can take years, and those with the most severe difficulties often find therapy frustrating. There is therefore an urgent need to find more effective ways of treating aphasia patients.
Dr Lotte Meteyard, from the University's School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, led the study. She said: "Every three and a half minutes someone in the UK will be affected by stroke. Many face communication problems that will have a debilitating impact on their day-to-day lives. Rehabilitating stroke patients' communication is very challenging. We know that in the long-run therapy needs to be frequent, highly intensive and focused on ‘real' communication to be effective. Finding a ‘way in' for people with severe speech problems, so that they can achieve some success and be motivated for therapy, is often the most difficult part.
"There is evidence that ‘iconic' words are easier to learn - children's early words will often be animal sounds like ‘moo' and ‘meow'. Iconicity is used elsewhere in speech therapy, including makaton sign language to support speech in children with learning disabilities or special needs. We were interested in whether these same kinds of words might be ‘saved' for people who have language difficulties as a result of stroke."
In this study the research team asked 13 individuals with aphasia to complete different tasks - reading aloud, repetition, and deciding if a word they saw or heard was a real word or a nonsense word. Individuals with aphasia were significantly more accurate for iconic words when reading aloud or judging if a spoken word was real or not.
Dr Meteyard continued: "One of the most problematic things about language is that for most words the sounds or letters of the word tell us nothing about the meaning. This makes learning language exceptionally challenging since we have to learn to map these arbitrary sounds onto a meaning. However, onomatopoeic words such as ‘buzz' or ‘splash' are an exception to this rule.
"Currently people with aphasia undergo assessments to identify their difficulties and priorities. The type of therapy is then based on clinician judgement and varies hugely from person to person. Our study identified types of words which might be effective building blocks across different kinds of aphasia therapy. The next step is to see if they do make a difference in speech and language therapy studies."
‘When semantics aids phonology: A processing advantage for iconic word forms in aphasia' was published in the September issue of the journal Neuropsychologia
This study was supported by the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council