Mobile Menu

Genetics Unzipped podcast: Meet the Robinson Crusoe Islanders – exploring the genetic roots of speech and language development

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney takes a trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, dropping in on the Robinson Crusoe island.

Formerly known as Mas a Tierra and renamed in 1966, this small mountainous island is a remote tropical paradise known mostly for the fact that it’s said to be the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, hence the name.

Today, Robinson Crusoe Island is far-flung holiday destination for intrepid travellers, populated by a small island community of around 600. One day, about fifteen years ago, a woman named Pia Villanueva came to the island on holiday for a relaxing break. Or, at least, that is until the islanders discovered that she was a speech therapist…

To tell the story, Kat’s joined by Dr Dianne Newbury, senior lecturer and principal investigator in the molecular genetics of speech and language at Oxford Brookes University.

Searching for the genes behind speech and language impairment

“[Pia found] that the children on the island have a very high incidence of speech and language impairment – they have difficulties learning to use speech and to understand things that are said to them – and she was trying to find out whether that was something to do with schooling on the island, or the situation of living on the island, or something more genetic,” she explains.

“My research involves finding genetic variations that contribute to speech and language impairments, so when I saw [their paper] I emailed the lead researcher and said, you know, we could do a study and we could find out whether it is genetic or not. And she emailed me back and said, that would be amazing! So that was how we got involved.”

Dianne and her team have been working with the island population, which contains an unusually high number of people with speech and language impairment, to discover what their genes can teach us about speech and language development, and what happens when this goes awry.

More than just genetics

Importantly, her involvement with the islanders didn’t stop there. As a result of their work, the island’s children now benefit from a dedicated speech therapy service. And even though she’s a geneticist rather than a speech specialist, Dianne also went back to help deliver an early years intervention that is helping to improve language and literacy on the island.

“I think probably some of the things that I’m the proudest of are the things I didn’t foresee. So I would have said, well, I will be able to identify genes that contribute. But I wouldn’t have said to you I will be visiting desert islands or that I would be helping to deliver speech and language intervention programs,” she laughs.

“But these are the kinds of things that provide immediate impact for families that are affected. And actually on the basis of the program on the Robinson Crusoe island, we’re also developing a speech and language intervention that’s being rolled out in Sao Paulo at the moment, so these are the things that I would never ever have seen myself doing.”

Listen to the Genetics Unzipped podcast now

Listen now wherever you find your podcasts or catch up on all our episodes, including show notes and full transcripts, at

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

Find Genetics Unzipped on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

More on these topics

Genetics Unzipped / Podcast