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Joanisse and Seidenberg – Specific language impairment
Specific language
a deficit in grammar
or processing?
Marc F. Joanisse and Mark S. Seidenberg
Specific Language Impairment (SLI) is observed in children who fail to acquire ageappropriate language skills but otherwise appear to be developing normally. There are
two main hypotheses about the nature of these impairments. One assumes that they
reflect impairments in the child’s innate knowledge of grammar. The other is that they
derive from information-processing deficits that interfere with several aspects of
language learning. There is considerable evidence that SLI is associated with impaired
speech processing; however, the link between this deficit and the kinds of grammatical
impairments observed in these children has been unclear. We suggest that the link is
provided by phonology, a speech-based code that plays important roles in learning
linguistic generalizations and in working memory.
M.F. Joanisse and
M.S. Seidenberg are
at the Neuroscience
Program, University
of Southern
California, USC
Neuroscience HNB18, Los Angeles, CA
90089-2520, USA.
tel: +1 213 740 9174
fax: +1 213 740 5687
e-mail: marcj@gizmo.
pecific Language Impairment is the diagnostic category
for children who fail to develop age-appropriate language
despite being apparently normal in other respects. By definition, these children are thought to have no obvious hearing, cognitive, or neurological deficits, yet they learn to talk
relatively late. When they do begin to talk they produce
fewer utterances than expected for their age and intelligence; and they exhibit deficits in several aspects of language
including phonology, morphology and syntax (see Box 1).
The fact that these children are also impaired in comprehending language suggests that their problem is not merely
a peripheral one related to the production of speech.
SLI has recently attracted considerable attention as a
source of evidence about the biological and genetic bases of
grammar. The central problem in the study of language acquisition is to explain how a child can acquire language in a
relatively short period of time, given the complexity of language and the nature of the input to which children are exposed1–4. The standard view, derived from the work of
Chomsky, is that the input to the child is impoverished, and
that languages are only learnable because knowledge of
grammatical structure – ‘universal grammar’ – is innate.
Some researchers working within this framework have
taken SLI as evidence that specific components of this innate grammatical capacity can be damaged. For example,
the fact that the children’s use of past tense morphology is
impaired is attributed to a deficit in the morphological
component of grammar5. The fact that at least some forms
of SLI have a heritable component has prompted further
speculation that components of grammar may have specific
genetic encodings5–7. Pinker, for example, has suggested
that ‘the syndrome shows that there must be some pattern
of genetically guided events in the development in the
brain…that is specialized for the wiring in of linguistic
computation’ (Ref. 5, p. 324). This view of SLI was summarized previously by Gopnik7.
That people are born knowing ‘universal grammar’ and
that language necessarily involves rules are themselves controversial claims8–10 and so it is not surprising that attempts
Copyright © 1998, Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. 1364-6613/98/$19.00
Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 2, No. 7,
July 1998
Box 1. Elements of language
affected in SLI
Children with SLI are usually impaired in using several
aspects of language, including some or all of the following:
Phonology: refers to the organization of speech sounds into
segments. Affected children have difficulty producing words
with complex clusters of consonants (like spectacle), or
analysing the phonological structure of a word (such as saying what sound follows the /p/ in split).
Morphology: refers to the structure of words and mechanisms
for creating related words such as affixing and compounding.
English-speaking children with SLI are often impaired at
tasks involving the generation of past tenses or plurals,
particularly for novel words such as wug and blick.
Syntax: refers to the structure of sentences. Affected children
have difficulty analysing sentences with complex syntactic
structures, such as datives (Sally showed Henry to Bill) and
passives (Frank was hit by Bob).
PII: S1364-6613(98)01186-3
Joanisse and Seidenberg – Specific language impairment
Box 2. Possible language impairment subtypes
Clinical Language Subtypes proposed by Rapin and Allena, as
reported in Bishopb. Many of these subtypes are likely to be
excluded from studies of SLI.
Verbal auditory agnosia (‘word deafness’): severe comprehension
deficit, in which affected child is poor at understanding spoken
language. Language production is poor.
Verbal dyspraxia: deficit in using speech articulators. Language
production is poor, though comprehension is relatively
Phonological programming syndrome: deficit in producing
speech sounds, though oral-motor ability is normal. Comprehension is relatively normal.
Phonological–syntactic deficit: poor phonological and syntactic abilities. Both production and comprehension are impaired.
Lexical–syntactic deficit syndrome: word-finding difficulties,
to explain SLI in these terms have also generated considerable debate. (See two excellent recently published
overviews of SLI research11,12 for additional discussion of
many of the issues discussed here.) We will argue in this review that the main question about SLI is whether the deficit
is, in fact, limited to grammar. An alternative view is that
these impairments are sequelae of information processing
deficits that broadly interfere with language learning. In
particular, there is good evidence that SLI is associated with
impairments in the processing of speech; that these impairments affect the development of phonological representations; and that degraded phonological representations are
the proximal cause of deviant acquisition of morphology
and syntax, by virtue of their roles in learning and working
memory. This view differs from how grammarians interpret
SLI, but is consistent with an older clinical tradition in
which developmental language impairments have been recognized as dysphasias that are often accompanied by deficits
in perception and learning13,14.
Varieties of childhood language impairment
One issue that must be confronted at the outset is the considerable ambiguity about SLI as a diagnostic category. It is
clear that language is a complex system, the acquisition and
use of which are highly dependent on various aspects of perception, cognition, learning and motor performance. It is
therefore not surprising that language development can be
impaired in a variety of ways. Box 2 provides a typology of
developmental language impairments proposed by Rapin
and Allen15. It is unlikely that all of these patterns of impairment have a common cause and the extent to which the
deficits are limited to language is unclear. Terms such as
‘specific language impairment’, ‘developmental language
impairment’ and ‘developmental dysphasia’ are applied to
children whose behavioral profiles and etiologies vary considerably. In this respect, these categories are like the term
‘dyslexia’, which is broadly applied to children with reading
impairments but differentiates into subtypes associated with
different behavioral patterns and etiologies16. Like language
impairment, dyslexia often co-occurs with (and may be
caused by) other cognitive and perceptual deficits. As Rapin
accompanied with difficulty using sentences in connected
speech. Comprehension of abstract meanings is poor. Similar to
the popular definition of SLI.
Semantic–pragmatic deficit syndrome: production and comprehension of grammar is normal, but the ability to understand
and produce meaningful utterances is impaired.
a Rapin, I. and Allen, D. (1987) Developmental dysphasia and autism
in pre-school children: characteristics and subtypes, in Proceedings
of the First International Symposium on Specific Speech and
Language Disorders in Children, Association of All Speech
Impaired Children
b Bishop, D.V.M. (1997) Uncommon Understanding: Development
Psychology Press
and Allen’s taxonomy suggests, there is a subtype of language impairment in which deficits in phonology and syntax co-occur; they are the children typically labeled ‘SLI’
and the focus of this article.
Grammatical impairments in SLI
Grammatical accounts of SLI have focused on deficits in
morphology and syntax. Children with SLI have difficulty
producing and comprehending morphologically complex
words, such as the past tense and plural inflections in
English (e.g. baked, books). They understand the concepts of
pastness and plurality, but their ability to express these concepts using grammatical morphemes is impaired. This phenomenon is not limited to English; SLI speakers of other
languages exhibit impairments in using other aspects of
morphology such as case marking in Hebrew17, grammatical aspect in Japanese18 and compound words in Greek19.
A grammatical account of this deficit20 holds that SLI
children are missing the abstract grammatical principle of
inflection, which is necessary for determining linguistic relationships such as subject-verb agreement and grammatical
case assignment. As a result, these children fail to proceed
beyond an early ‘optional infinitive’ stage in acquisition,
during which the application of inflectional rules is not
obligatory. On this view, their errors follow from a lack of
knowledge that morphological marking is obligatory.
A different account of this morphological deficit was
proposed by Pinker and Gopnik, who assert that it derives
from an inability to learn inflectional rules5–7,21. Because
they lack the capacity to formulate rules, SLI children can
only learn morphological marking through rote learning of
individual inflected words. This account is consistent with
the observation that children with SLI produce some correctly-inflected forms (such as baked) as well as irregular
forms (such as took) but perform poorly when asked to generate inflected forms for novel words (such as wug)6. On this
account, SLI provides evidence that language involves rules,
that this rule-forming capacity can be congenitally impaired, and that the deficit may be genetically transmitted.
Syntactic impairments have also been demonstrated in
SLI. These include difficulties with complex structures such
Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 2, No. 7,
July 1998
Joanisse and Seidenberg – Specific language impairment
Box 3. Other deficits in SLI
SLI children can also exhibit impairments of non-linguistic
abilities, although the relationship of these deficits to their
impaired language is unclear. They could be a cause or
consequence of the language deficit, or simply an unrelated
Oral-motor control (dyspraxia): while diagnoses of SLI preclude
individuals with gross motor deficits (dysarthria), difficulties in
planning and executing complex oral-motor programs appear
to be significantly impaired in a handful of casesa,b.
Speech perception: the ability to discriminate and categorize
speech sounds is diminished (e.g. Ref. c; see also Fig. 1).
Working memory: children with SLI have shorter working
memory spans, in both speech and non-speech modalitiesd–f.
Analogical reasoning: the ability to reason through analogy is
impaired, even in tasks for which language plays a minimal
Visual imagery: children with SLI perform worse than controls
in tasks such as the mental rotation of imagesi.
b Vargha-Khadem, F. et al. (1995) Praxic and non-verbal cognitive
deficits in a large family with a genetically transmitted speech and
language disorder Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 92, 930–933
c Elliott, L.L., Hammer, M.A. and Scholl, M.E. (1990) Fine-grained
auditory discrimination in normal children and children with
language-learning problems J. Speech Hear. Res. 32, 112–119
d Gathercole, S.E. and Baddeley, A.D. (1990) Phonological memory
deficits in language disordered children: Is there a causal
connection? J. Mem. Lang. 29(3), 336–360
e Kirchner, D. and Klatzky, R. (1985) Verbal rehearsal and memory in
language-disordered children J. Speech Hear. Res. 28, 556–564
f Tallal, P. et al. (1981) A re-examination of some non-verbal
perceptual abilities of language-impaired and normal children as
a function of age and sensory modality J. Speech Hear. Res. 24,
g Nelson, L., Kamhi, A. and Apel, A. (1987) Cognitive strengths
and weaknesses in language-impaired children: one more look
J. Speech Hear. Disord. 52, 36–43
h Ellis-Weismer, S. (1985) Constructive comprehension abilities
exhibited by language-disordered children J. Speech Hear. Disord.
28, 175–184
i Johnston,
a Vargha-Khadem, F. and Passingham, R.E.
as dative/double-object alternations (‘Bill showed the dog to the
cat’ versus ‘Bill showed the dog the cat’) and reversible passives
(‘the ship sank the submarine’ versus ‘the ship was sunk by the
submarine’)22. A study by van der Lely and Stollwerck23
identified deficits in the ability to use syntactic principles
governing anaphoric reference (e.g. ‘Bill says that Bobby is
watching himself’ versus ‘Bill says that Bobby is watching
him’). In the first sentence, ‘himself’ can only refer to Bobby,
and not Bill; in the second sentence, ‘him’ cannot refer to
Bobby, though it can optionally refer to Bill. Generative
theory suggests that there is a universal set of binding principles governing such constructions24. Van der Lely and
Stollwerck suggested that this aspect of grammar was affected in their subjects. Results of this kind suggest that the
deficits of children with SLI are not limited to morphology
and may include several aspects of sentence grammar.
These accounts share the idea that SLI involves impaired grammar. However, there is disagreement among
them concerning the nature of the impairment, specifically
the incidence of different types of grammatical deficits,
their relative frequencies and how often they co-occur, and
whether other aspects of language are also affected. SLI is
said to involve ‘selective’ impairments to specific components of grammar, but few studies have looked equally
carefully at a broad range of linguistic and non-linguistic
abilities in the same subjects.
Perceptual deficits in SLI
It is clear that SLI children’s behavioral impairments extend
well beyond grammar (see Box 3). In particular, there is
considerable evidence that they have subtle impairments in
speech perception. In several studies, they performed poorly
on tasks that require discriminating phonological features
such as consonant voicing (the difference between ba and
pa) and place of articulation (ba versus ga)25, failing to show
Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 2, No. 7,
correspondence Nature 346, 226
abilities in language-disordered children J. Speech Hear. Res. 26,
(1990) Scientific
the normal categorical perception effects associated with
such stimuli (Fig. 1). Whereas the grammar approach treats
this deficit as unrelated to the children’s linguistic impairments, the alternative account holds that it is their proximal
cause: SLI children learn language deviantly because they
misperceive speech.
The basis for this speech processing deficit is unclear.
Tallal has proposed that the impairment involves the processing of rapid, sequential information26,28. Spoken language involves perceiving a complex, rapidly changing, fastfading auditory signal, and thus an impaired capacity to
resolve aspects of this signal would greatly interfere with
learning language. Tallal’s theory predicts selective impairments in perceiving speech sounds that rely on short (less
than 50 ms), transient acoustic cues such as the voicing of
stop consonants (e.g. the difference between do and to). It
also predicts that speech sounds that are discriminated by
longer acoustic cues (longer than 100 ms) such as vowels
and fricatives (e.g. the initial sounds in sue and shoe) should
be unimpaired. Tallal’s studies have also identified impairments in perceiving rapid stimuli in the visual and tactile
modalities in these children, suggesting that the deficit is
not speech-specific. In addition, this work has suggested
that the language abilities of children with SLI can be
improved by adaptively training them to discriminate rapid
and sequential auditory signals, including speech and
non-speech sounds28.
Tallal’s research has generated considerable interest but
it has also raised many methodological and theoretical questions and it continues to be the focus of intensive investigation. There is little consensus as to the exact characterization of this perceptual deficit, and there may be
considerable variability within the SLI population with regard to it (see Ref. 11, Chapter 3 for a review). In addition,
processing deficits similar to those described by Tallal have
July 1998
Joanisse and Seidenberg – Specific language impairment
How common are perceptual deficits in SLI?
Some researchers have failed to observe abnormal speech
perception in children with SLI, raising further questions
about its relevance to their language impairments. Such null
results need to be interpreted cautiously, however. A serious
concern is whether the tasks that yielded null results provided adequate tests of the children’s perceptual capacities.
For example, Gopnik21 investigated only subjects’ abilities
to discriminate and repeat minimal pairs of words (e.g. bat
and bad); this task does not capture much of the complexity
of perceiving continuous speech and may have been simple
enough for even perceptually impaired children to perform.
There is an extensive literature on speech perception impairments in SLI using tasks that provide sensitive measures
of subtle aspects of auditory processing25,26,29–31. Some studies using such measures have revealed apparently normal
auditory perception in some children with SLI but again
the results must be interpreted cautiously. For example,
Bernstein and Stark31 examined language-impaired children
who had demonstrated abnormal auditory perception at a
younger age, and found that for some of these children this
impairment had resolved even though their language
deficits persisted. The authors suggested that a language
deficit could result from a perceptual deficit occurring at a
critical point in language development, even though it would
not necessarily be present at a later stage in development.
Phonological deficits and SLI
Granting that at least some language-impaired children
have abnormal speech perception, how can these deficits be
related to their impaired language? We propose that the link
between the two is provided by phonology. The child must
learn the phonological inventory and other phonological
regularities of the language to which he/she is exposed. Impaired perception of speech interferes with the development
of phonological representations, which in turn affects other
aspects of grammatical development17. Consistent with this
account, many language-impaired children, particularly
those who also manifest syntactic difficulties15, exhibit
abnormal phonology as revealed by poor repetition of
nonsense words32, misarticulating or deleting phonemes
from words33, difficulty in identifying words with similar
‘t’ identifications (%)
been observed in children whose language is not impaired;
Krauss et al.28 showed that bot …
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