Relationships between concurrent language ability and mental health outcomes in a South African sample of 13-year-olds

Michelle St Clair, Sarah Skeen, Marguerite Marlow, Mark Tomlinson

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Children and adolescents with delayed or disordered language development are at increased risk of a number of negative outcomes, including social and emotional problems and mental health difficulties. Yet, in low- and middle- income countries, where risk factors for compromised language development are known to be prevalent, there is a lack of research on the association between child and adolescent language ability and mental health outcomes. This study evaluates data from a cross-sectional study in Khayelitsha, a semi-urban impoverished community near Cape Town, South Africa. To measure language ability, behaviour and mental health, adolescents aged 13 (n = 200) were assessed using the Riddles subtest of the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children Version 2, the parent report Child Behaviour Checklist, and the self-report Moods and Feelings Questionnaire and the Self-Esteem Questionnaire. We conducted univariate and multivariate analyses to determine associations between language skills, self-esteem and mental health in this group of adolescents. Poor language ability was related to a range of concurrent adverse difficulties, such as attention deficits, self-esteem problems, social withdrawal, and depressive symptoms. Increased levels of language ability were related to better psychosocial profiles. In some cases, only individuals with a low level of language (bottom 10% of sample) were at increased risk of maladaptive outcomes. This study replicates the well-established relationship between language ability and poorer mental health found within high income countries in an upper middle-income country setting. Locally accessible support for children with reduced language ability is required, given the longer-term consequences of poorer mental health.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0221242
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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