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Malnutrution and the effects on language

Updated on July 30, 2012
Genie was abused and malnourished since birth but thankfully saved
Genie was abused and malnourished since birth but thankfully saved | Source


Malnutrition can have a devastating effect on many aspects of childhood development. Language development in particular can be effected by malnutrition in young children. It is important to understand how language development is affected by factors including malnutrition, thiamine deficiency and lack of attachment to a primary care giver.

Language development in children can be stunted by malnutrition, thiamine deficiency, and an unhealthy or non-existent attachment to a caregiver which all can delay the child’s cognitive development, in both a physiological and psychological way. By examining case studies and leading theories, a detailed explanation for under-developed language processes can be formulated. Cases like that of Genie and the Romanian adoptees will be discussed in connection to the adverse effects that malnutrition and lack of attachment can have on language development.

Malnourishing and it's effects

Malnutrition can be severely debilitating to language development in early childhood. The reason malnutrition is so devastating is that it is thought to be stunting the brains normal growth. When the brain is not getting the proper nutrients it needs to grow properly, many physiological brain abnormalities can take form (Franzen & Smith, 2009). When a child is growing, they require a certain amount of nutrients to allow for proper brain development, whether it is the creation of new tissue or neurons (Ladage, 2009).

Genie is a good example of under-development partly due to malnutrition. Fed irregularly and unhealthily, Genie grew up malnourished for most of her childhood. As a result, Genie’s cognitive abilities were highly, adversely affected. Her speech was almost non-existent and she had a great difficulty learning from her new caregivers at the hospital.

While malnourishment seems to be a leading theory in the under-development of language skills, other theories exist as well. Another important factor that leads to under-developed language skills is the lack of thiamine (or B1 vitamin) in a child’s diet.

B1 Defficiency

The vitamin B1, or thiamine, has been proven to be an important nutrient in brain development. Without a proper amount of thiamine in the diet, a child’s brain growth is adversely affected (Fattal-Valevski, et al., 2009). A study done by Fattal-Valeski et al. concluded that a low amount of thiamine in a child’s diet can lead to severe medical complications and even death.

The study examined a sample of 20 babies who were accidentally fed formula with lower doses of thiamine. The effects of the thiamine deficiency were startling. Two children ended up dying as a result and another went into a vegetative state. When the mistake was realized and the children were given doses of thiamine, their conditions improved. Unfortunately this improvement was too little too late, as most of the damage had already been done.

Thiamine is thought to influence the growth of the basal ganglia as well as the thalamic nuclei, which are both used in language. Other studies have shown that thiamine deficiency also results in neuronal cell loss that can persist into adulthood (Fattal-Valevski et al., 2009). It is clear that thiamine is a very important nutrient involved in the development of the brain. Without proper intake of thiamine it is conceivable that cognitive abilities, and language skills, will be adversely affected.


Attachment is very important in the development of young children. Without a healthy attachment to a caregiver, a child will grow up under-developed and abnormal. In many cases it is clear that an unhealthy attachment or no attachment at all effects cognitive development, and, as a result, language development (Walker, et al., 2007).

Genie’s case, for example, shows just how important a loving and caring attachment is. Genie was not cared for and did not form a healthy attachment to her parents. She was not talked to or engaged in discussions. As a result Genie had almost no language when she was saved from her abusive environment. If Genie had been talked to properly, and made to discuss her setting with her caregivers, she may have begun to develop language skills.

Similarly, the Romanian adoptees were not engaged or taught in their environment. They grew up with no push to learn or develop their own thoughts and words. As a result, these children had almost no language acquisition and were severely under-developed (Rutter, Sonuga-Barke, & Castle).

These children were not engaged nor were they taught how to talk. These parents could have used joint attention to firm the children’s understanding of their environment. They could also have had conversations around the children and allowed the children to mimic them in their use of language. It is clear, however, that the caregivers at the Romanian orphanage and Genie’s parents did not help the children learn language. The children did not form healthy attachments with loving individuals and as a result were not developing their cognitive abilities (Rutter, Sonuga-Barke, & Castle). Because of the adverse affects of their environments and the lack of attachment they had to their caregivers, these children never learned to use language or develop their skills in language or cognition.


Factors that affect the language development of a child in a negative way are not easily reversed or fixed. The effects of malnutrition cause irreversible damage to a child’s brain and cognitive development (Ladage, 2009). Just as malnutrition stunts the growth of nearly everything in the child’s body, a thiamine deficiency stunts brain development. The lack of B1 vitamins in the child’s diet causes the brain to become under-developed. Thiamine helps the brain to develop many of it’s important cognitive parts, including the basal ganglia and the thalamic nuclei. Without these important brain systems working properly, language development is stunted. Thiamine deficiency also results in neuronal cell loss that can persist into adulthood (Fattal-Valevski, et al., 2009).

Even psychological factors are important in language development. Without proper attachment to a primary caregiver, children never develop the ability to use language. If the caregiver does not use joint attention or converse with the child, it is impossible for the child to develop language. Even when the child is removed from the harsh environment the damage is irreversible. The child may begin to develop language abilities but they will not catch-up to their peer group (Franzen & Smith, 2009). It is clear from this research that malnutrition and improper care can have long lasting effects of the child. Without adequate nutrition and secure attachments, children will not develop their language or cognitive abilities.


Fattal-Valevski, A., Azouri-Fattal, I., Greenstein, Y. J., Guindy, M., Blau, A., & Zelnik, N. (2009). Delayed language development due to infantile thiamine deficiency. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology , 51 (8), 629-634.

Franzen, L., & Smith, C. (2009). Diffrences in stature, BMI, and dietary practises between US born and newly immigrated Hmong children. Social Science and Medicine , 69, 442-450.

Ladage, j. S. (2009). Medical Issues in International Adoption and Their Influence on Language Development. Topics in Language Disorders , 29 (1), 6-17.

Rutter, M., Sonuga-Barke, E. J., & Castle, J. (n.d.). Investigating the Impact of Early Institutional Deprivation on Development: Background and Research Strategy of the English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) Study. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development , 1-20.

Walker, S. P., Wachs, T. D., Gardner, J. M., Lozoff, B., Wasserman, G. A., Pollitt, E., et al. (2007). Child Development: risk factors for adverse outcomes in developing countries. Lancet , 369, 145-157.


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