[WS109] Innovations in the study of language acquisition and language impairment


Authors : Maria Teresa Guasti, Stephen Crain, Rozz Thornton

Innovations in the study of language acquisition and language impairment

Perhaps more than any other branch of psycholinguistics, the study of language acquisition has relied mainly on off-line methods to investigate children’s emerging syntactic and semantic competence. Because children start putting words together into sentences when they are about 2 years old, studies of early development cannot take advantage of some of the off-line measures (e.g., grammaticality/acceptability judgment tasks) that are used to investigate linguistic knowledge in older children and in adults. Indeed, many of these psychological measures have proven difficult to utilize with children younger than 5- or 6-years-old. Consequently, the field of experimental child language research has been able to shed significantly more light on the later stages of language acquisition, achieved by children older than 5-years of age. This does not mean that research using off-line tasks has not proven fruitful in studies of younger children, especially when these tasks have been coupled with detailed theoretical models of language acquisition. Nevertheless, additional advances in the study of the early stages of language development have become possible, as a result of a shift to techniques that investigate the dynamic character of language processing, i.e., on-line measures of child language. In the last 10 years, there have been technical developments both in behavioural techniques (e.g., eye-movement recording) and in brain imagining techniques (e.g., ERP, MEG) that have permitted researchers to begin to objectively measure certain aspects of children’s language, without requiring them to perform complex psychological task. These new developments have yielded important results both in typically-developing children and in children with language impairment.


For example, the use of eye tracking, in combination with the visual world paradigm, has been used successfully to investigate children’s online attachment preferences in resolving structural ambiguities (e.g., Trueswell et al., 1999), and their knowledge of scalar implicatures (e.g., Huang & Snedecker, 2009), their knowledge of focus properties (Zhou and Crain, 2010) and to address claims about children’s sensitivity to features of the referential context (Meroni & Crain 2011). These studies have revealed children’s sensitivity to linguistic phenomena, in ways that would not have been possible using off-line methods. For example, an eye-tracking study by Zhou et al. (in press) demonstrated pre-school children’s sensitive to prosody in online ambiguity resolution, despite confirming their inability to apply this knowledge rapidly enough to decide on the intended interpretation of ambiguous sentences. In addition, ERPs (Event Related Potentials) and MEG (magnetoencephalography) have both been used to investigate children’s sensitivity to syntactic and morphosyntactic violations, in research on typically-developing (TD) children (Johnson et al., 2010) and, more recently, in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) and in children with dyslexia. To take just a couple of examples, studies using ERPs have revealed that children with SLI do not process syntactic dependencies in the same ways as typically-developing children do (Fontaneu & van der Lely, 2008), that children with dyslexia do not display the same ERP component as TD children do when processing morphosyntactic violations (Cantiani et al., in press; Rispens et al., 2006). Using MEG, it has been found that children with dyslexia take several additional years, as compared to age matched controls, to develop lateralized brain responses to broad-band noise (Johnson et al. submitted).


Until recently investigations of children with language impairments have been conducted one disorder at a time, as though co-morbidity does not exist. So, for example, SLI is usually characterized as an impairment in oral language, and dyslexia is characterized as an impairment in written language. However, it is well known that some of the symptoms of each of these disorders are often found in the same children. Moreover, impairments of both kinds are often associated with problems in motor control, as presented in children with ASD, as well as in children with dysgraphia, a relatively neglected disorder that is characterised by difficulties in writing (e.g., Grissmer et al., 2010 Lam et al., 2011 for dyslexia; Vukovic et al., 2010 for SLI).  These kinds of associations, between motor control and higher-level language impairments, are beginning to capture the attention of both developmental pyscholinguistics and theoreticians. Taking advantage of the recent developments in online research methodologies, researchers are now prepared to address questions that were beyond our grasp even ten years ago, such as: do these associations arise from some deeper source in the brain? The answer to this question promises to open new avenues of research in the study of language impairment, and the findings promise to add to the list of details that any viable theory of the language apparatus must explain. In short, the availability of new online techniques and new theoretical approaches to language disorders, we are now positioned to pose and explore new questions, including ones that promise to deepen our understanding of language and the mind/brain.


The workshop will address the following questions:

  • What have the new research techniques revealed so far about the process of language acquisition in typical developing children and in children with specific language disorders?
  • Will new research methodologies enable us to better understand the causes of language impairment? Or, do these techniques have more limited value, such that they can only  confirm what we learn using tried-and-true behavioural tasks?
  • What is to be made of the finding that children are sensitive to a certain linguistic phenomena, but are unable to apply this sensitivity in language use?
  • A related question to the previous one is: What prevents children from displaying specific aspects of linguistic knowledge in using language?
  • How can we explain the comorbidity between language disorders and impairments in motor control? Is this evidence of some deeper cause?
  • A related question to the previous one is: What is the relation between reading and writing disorders in children?
  • How do the observations of comorbidity in children impact on the issue of modularity?



Bouamama S. (2010) Arabic writing:Cinematic and Geometric descriptors. PH. D. Dissertation, University of Milano-Bicocca.

Cantiani, C., Lorusso, M. L., Perego, P., Molteni, M., Guasti, M. T. (in press) ERPs reveal anomalous morphosyntactic processing in developmental dyslexia, Applied Psycholinguistics.

Fonteneau, E., & Van der Lely, H. K. J. (2008). Electrical brain responses in language-impaired children revealed grammar specific deficits. Public Library of Science ONE 3, e1832.do. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001832.

Huang, Y & Snedecker, J. (2009) . Semantic meaning and pragmatic interpretation in five-year olds: Evidence from real time spoken language comprehension. Developmental Psychology, 45(6),1723-1739.

Johnson, B.W., Crain, S., Thornton, R., Tesan, G., & Reid, M. (2010). Measurement of brain function in pre-school children using a custom sized whole-head MEG sensor array. Clinical Neurophysiology, 121(3), 340-349. doi:10.1016/j.clinph.2009.10.017

Meroni, L. & Crain, S. (2011). “How Children Avoid Kindergarten Paths”. In Edward Gibson and Neal Pearlmutter (Ed.), The processing and acquisition of reference. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rispens, J., Been, P. H., & Zwarts, F. (2006). Brain responses to subject-verb agreement violations in spoken language in developmental dyslexia: an ERP study. Dyslexia, 12, 134-149.

Trueswell, J.C., Sekerina, I., Hill, N.M. & Logrip, M.L. (1999). The kindergarten-path effect: studying on-line sentence processing in young children. Cognition, 73, 89-134.

Zhou, P., Su, Y., Crain, S., Gao, L. Q., & Zhan, L.K. (In Press). Children's use of phonological information in ambiguity resolution: A view from Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Child Language.

Zhou, P. and S. Crain (2010) Focus identification in Child Mandarin. Journal of Child Language 37, 965-1005.

22.07.2013   14:00-16:00

Title: Language in Specific Language Impairement and Dyslexia
Chair: Maria Teresa Guasti

14:00 - 14:40 Mabel RICE
Linguistic Growth Patterns of Children with Specific Language Impairment: Implications for Etiological Mechanisms
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14:40 - 15:20 Chiara CANTIANI et al.
Impaired inflectional morphology in children with dyslexia and SLI: Converging evidence from Event-Related Potentials and behavioral measures
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15:20 - 16:00 Heather VAN DER LELY
Insight into the neurobiological basis of grammar acquisition from developmental grammatical impairments
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22.07.2013   16:30-18:30

Title: Language development and language disorders
Chair: Stephen Crain

16:30 - 17:10 Barbara HÖHLE
Early prosodic development and later language performance: Results from a longitudinal study from infancy to preschool age
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17:10 - 17:50 Maria Teresa GUASTI et al.
Comordibity between dyslexia, SLI and motor disorders
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17:50 - 18:30 Peng ZHOU
What does eye-tracking reveal about children's linguistic knowledge?
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23.07.2013   10:30-12:30

Title: Using MEG with children
Chair: Mabel Rice

10:30 - 11:10 Blake W. JOHNSON
Studies on children's motor control using MEG
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11:10 - 11:50 Stephen CRAIN et al.
Child MEG for the study of language acquisition and language impairment
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11:50 - 12:30 Stephen CRAIN