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Developmental Disorders and Language

Presenter: Laurence B. Leonard, Ph.D.

Specific Language Impairment Across Languages: In Search of a Common Denominator

Children with specific language impairment (SLI) often have a longstanding difficulty with spoken language and are at significant risk for reading and other academic difficulties. For children with SLI who are acquiring English, the most common profile is a mild to moderate deficit across the semantic areas of language and an especially serious deficit in the use of function words (e.g., is) and grammatical inflections (e.g., -ed). It seems likely that difficulty with a subset of these grammatical forms may even constitute a clinical marker for SLI in English. The research reviewed in this presentation will focus on children with SLI who are acquiring other languages, especially Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. Our findings from these languages indicate that the profiles of SLI change substantially according to the type of language being acquired. By making cross-linguistic comparisons, we will identify features of language that no longer seem like universal problems in SLI, and others that seem to lie closer to the heart of SLI regardless of the language of the child. Emphasis will also be given to the demands each language places on children's ability to identify and interpret grammatical details, and the implications of this factor for prevention and treatment.


Dr. Leonard received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973. Since 1978 he has been on the faculty of the Department of Audiology and Speech Sciences at Purdue University. He currently holds the position of Rachel E. Stark Distinguished Professor. For nearly 30 years, Dr. Leonard's research has dealt with the language and related cognitive abilities of children with specific language impairment. The long-term aim of this work is to discover some of the major sources of these children's difficulties, information that could lead to more effective clinical management, and contribute to a better understanding of the conditions responsible for language development.