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Facilitating speech, language skills in Maltese children via smart devices

The Speechie project is building a smart device that can help children with Developmental Language Disorder to practise language skills in Maltese and English in a fun and personally-tailored way.

The Speechie project is building a smart device that can help children with Developmental Language Disorder to practise language skills in Maltese and English in a fun and personally-tailored way.

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a condition through which children find it challenging to understand or use spoken language. Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) are professionals trained to detect and treat this condition as early as possible, thus minimising its consequences in adolescence and adulthood.

The faculties of Engineering, ICT and Health Sciences at the University of Malta have teamed up with Flying Squirrel Games Ltd to design a smart device for three- to five-year-old children, while creating a rewarding and motivating environment for speech and language therapy.

The Speechie project, funded through the MCST Fusion R&I Technology Development Programme 2016 (Project no. R&I-2015-046T), is in the process of developing Olly, a smart device that aims to provide an interactive and multimodal learning experience for children. Olly is intended to also engage children in physical and cognitive play-oriented activities during speech and language therapy.

Olly can practically be used by anyone wanting to practise the Maltese and English languages but added services are available for those who will be using the smart device for speech and language therapy. This device will allow children to practise speech and language skills at their own pace, while monitoring their progress. It will also address the challenge of getting children to practise skills between one therapy session and another. Olly will remind children to review their session activities.

Through this device, parents will have a means through which they can play with their kids and carry out the tasks assigned by the SLP at the same time. Whether it is the accurate production of speech sounds, word comprehension or word production, SLPs are able to choose which skills need to be practised by the child, enabling them to provide a tailored, fun and engaging intervention.

Olly has an inbuilt speech recognition system that is able to recognise Maltese and English words. Users can opt to record their spoken words for a later review by the SLP. Once connected to the internet, recordings and the progress of the child are uploaded to a private cloud, allowing SLPs to stay up to date with the child’s progress.

Perhaps the most beneficial property of Olly is the fact that it will allow SLPs to perform speech and language therapy remotely, permitting children to remain in the comfort of their home while the SLP conducts intervention through the device. Additionally, through another service of Olly, assessment of children’s speech and language skills can be facilitated, thus reducing the effort and time required to diagnose related difficulties.

A fully working prototype is under way and in the next phase, Olly will be tested with children in speech and language clinics and at home. For more information, visit https://www.fb.com/speechieproject/ or send an e-mail to speechie-web@um.edu.mt. Olly is subject to a pending patent application at the European Patent Office.

The team working on the Speechie project is: Dr Ing Philip Farrugia (Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering), who is pro­ject coordinator and lead inventor; Prof. Ing. Simon Fabri (Systems & Control Engineering, Faculty of Engineering); Prof. Helen Grech and Daniela Gatt (Communication Therapy, Faculty of Health Sciences); Dr Ing. Owen Casha (Microelectronics & Nanoelectronics, Faculty of Information & Communication Technology); Anthony Demanuele (Flying Squirrel Games Malta); and four postgraduate students – Emanuel Balzan (PhD), James Attard, Loridana Buttigieg and Louisa Frendo Wirth (all MSc by Research)

With reference to this article published in the Sunday Times of Malta on September 16, 2018, the SPEECHIE project research team employed a user-centred design (UCD) approach in the development of Olly. UCD places typical end-users of an artefact at the centre of the product development. For this reason, it was required to involve relevant stakeholders such as speech language pathologists (SLPs), parents, children, and personnel involved in assistive technology. A number of focus groups and workshops were held as part of the UCD approach. The SPEECHIE project research team is grateful for the contribution of the Speech Language Department in Luqa, the clients who frequent this department, the Speech Language Pathologists and the management of the Speech Language Department. Thanks go also to the parents who participated in the focus groups, to the personnel at the Access to Communication and Technology Unit (ACTU) and other persons from academia and industry who in some way or another put forward their expertise. Last, but not least, special thanks to the children who took part in the workshops.

Did you know?

• Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a condition where children have problems understanding and/or using spoken language.

• Scientists have not identified a single cause of DLD, such as a hearing problem or a disability that causes DLD.

• What is known is that genes play an important role in DLD. However, there is no medical test to see if a child has it or not.

• For a diagnosis of DLD, a child must have language difficulties that persist into school age and beyond.

• Children with DLD are supported through specific language skills that will allow them to reach their full potential.

For more trivia see: www.um.edu.mt/think

Sound bites

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https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180906123325.htm

• Ever wonder why flat earthers, birthers, climate change and Holocaust deniers stick to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? New findings from re­searchers at the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that feedback, rather than hard evidence, boosts people’s sense of certainty when learning new things or trying to tell right from wrong.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180904150353.htm

For more interesting science news listen to Radio Mocha every Saturday at 11.05am on Radju Malta 93.7 FM.

https://www.facebook.com/RadioMochaMalta/

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