Language, Speech and Hearing Sciences Professor Ellen Gerrits
Ellen Gerrits is professor of Clinical Language, Speech and Hearing Sciences at Utrecht University and lecturer in Speech Therapy Participation through Communication at HU University of Applied Sciences. Her expertise is in the field of speech and language disorders in children, which involves the possible causes, diagnosis and treatment. As a researchers, she is connected to the interdisciplinary theme The first 1001 days of a child's life.
Gerrits: "I became interested in speech therapy because my best friend’s sister was deaf. I found this situation extremely complex. I didn’t understand a word she said and she didn’t understand what I was saying." Gerrits was an intern at an institute for the deaf and was there when the cochlear implant was introduced. "A prosthesis for deaf children was a brand-new concept back then – a sort of miracle cure. I continued this topic in my work; I studied how deaf babies can acquire spoken language by using the device and learn to talk as a result."
Trouble with language
Five per cent of children suffer from a developmental language disorder (DLD). ‘By comparison: only 1 per cent is autistic’, Gerrits explains. ‘Although developmental language disorders are relatively unknown, they have major consequences for a child’s development. For instance, small children can become really angry if they are unable to communicate what they want. In addition, education is becoming more and more language-oriented. Even practical degrees at the level of senior secondary vocational education (MBO) now require that you are good at language.’ Language is also important to keep up with peers. It can be very complicated to understand the rules of the game on the playground if you have a developmental language disorder.
The part of the brain connected to language disorders is still a black box.
Moreover, a developmental language disorder has nothing to do with a lower intelligence. "Something goes wrong in the area of the brain responsible for language processing. Because their language problems lead to learning difficulties in language-oriented education, children with a language disorder all end up at lower education levels such as preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO). They often know why themselves and are frustrated because they can’t do it."
Bridging the gap between science and practice
Gerrits’ work focuses on language behaviour and treatment of people with language disorders. "My research is practical. It would be very nice if we could use this topic to connect basic and practical research; for example, by gaining more insight into what exactly goes wrong in the brains of children with DLD. Precisely this part of the brain is still a black box. Gaining more knowledge of it can help us to make the right choices when it comes to diagnosis, early identification of problems and treatment."
Gerrits’ chair at Utrecht University and lectorate at HU University of Applied Sciences are closely connected through a similar focus: she hopes to bridge the gap between scientific research and practical care. Her aim is innovation and support of intervention; in other words, to diagnose and treat people with speech and language disorders. She intends to develop proven communication tools to improve the communicative independence, speech and language skills of adults as well as children.
Ellen Gerrits' first 1001 days
What was her own language development like in the first 1001 days of her life? "I can still remember we had a tape on which I used to tell all kinds of stories. We had it for ages. I invented entire stories, which my parents recorded. So I was probably an early developer when it comes to language!"
Ellen Gerrits works closely with the Dutch Association for Speech Therapy and Phoniatrics as well as with care and educational institutions such as the Royal Auris Group, NSDSK, Pento or Royal Kentalis. Gerrits is also Programme Director of the Master’s degree in Speech Therapy Sciences, Board Member of the internal speech therapy association IALP, Chair of the Dutch Association for Voice, Speech and Language Pathology, Chair of the Ethics Committee in HU University’s Department of Health and editor of the journal Van Horen Zeggen.