University clinic hopes to gain insight on brain injuries’ impact on speech

For most people, it takes a lot of time and work to become fluent in a second language.

For some, it takes a brain injury.

TCU speech pathologist Maria Munoz knows a case.

“A student of mine had a brother who had a traumatic brain injury, so one day the mom walks into the hospital to see her injured son and realizes he’s speaking French,” Munoz said. “The funny thing is he wasn’t fluent in French. He’d studied it a little in high school and college, but he wasn’t fluent.”

The university’s 30-year-old bilingual speech pathology training program aims to help people like him.

The adult bilingual clinic in Miller Speech and Hearing Clinic is one of the few programs in the nation that offers bilingual training in speech language pathology, Munoz said. The clinic focuses in the Spanish language, she said.

Munoz said she has seen many cases in which a brain injury has impaired a person’s ability to speak. Cases in which a person becomes able to speak another language are unusual but not rare, she said.

According to the Miller Speech and Hearing Clinic Web site, services for patients offered at the clinic include assessment and treatment for those who have language disorders and whose language has been impaired by dementia or aphasia. Aphasia is a language disorder resulting from neurological injury such as a stroke, caused by a blood flow to the language area of the brain, Munoz said.

“It is uncertain why some bilingual patients are able to communicate in one language more effectively than the other after acquiring aphasia,” Munoz said. “We don’t know if it’s an inhibition issue, where the brain is inhibiting one language or if it’s an overactivation issue, where the brain is overactivating one language, or if it’s a switch in the brain. We just don’t know for certain, that’s why we need more research.”

Christopher Watts, chair of Harris College’s Department of Communication, Sciences and Disorders, said the adult bilingual clinic is unique.

“What sets us apart from similar clinics and communication disorders programs in the state and the nation is we are one of the few clinics which actively seeks to work with clients who may not speak English as a first language,” Watts said.

Graduate student Monica Davila, a student in speech pathology, said she enjoys training to work with bilingual adults at the clinic.

“The main reason I chose to come to TCU was for the bilingual program, which not many graduate schools offer,” Davila said.

Having bilingually trained pathologists is important because of cases in which bilingual patients have lost the ability to speak one language but can still speak the other, Munoz said.

However, only few speech pathologists are bilingually trained, and even fewer are trained to work with adults because more pathologists are trained to work with children given legal mandates in the education system, she said.

Munoz said the staff at the clinic, which includes her and four students, evaluates the needs of the patients to get them to communicate in whatever way they can.

The adult bilingual clinic is still in early development, Munoz said. The clinic is available to adult patients aged 42 to 72, she said.

Currently, the clinic is treating one adult patient, but the staff aims to treat at least eight more, she said.

“What I’m hoping comes out of the clinic is data that helps us to know what to do to maximize sessions for our patients,” Munoz said.

The adult bilingual clinic will also provide evidence-based research to the speech pathology community, Munoz said.

“We’ll be able to learn more about what treatments work best for patients,” she said.