Laurence B. Leonard, Ph.D.
Purdue University

People with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) can be found all over the world. Regardless of the language being learned, there are individuals with significant and long-lasting difficulties with language that do not have an obvious cause.

Yet when we go beyond these rather general observations, we see that the characteristics of DLD can be very different across languages. For example, the types of errors made by children with DLD learning English, Italian, and Swedish are not the same. When a four-year-old English-speaking child with DLD is referring to her new baby brother, she might say “Yesterday I hug him five times.” An Italian-speaking child with DLD might produce the Italian equivalent of “Yesterday I hugged five times,” getting “hugged” correct but incorrectly omitting the word “him.” A Swedish-speaking child with DLD will make a different kind of error, by putting the words “I” and “hugged” in the wrong order.

As we continue to study children with DLD across the globe, the reasons for these differences are becoming clear. Each language appears to have particular stumbling blocks even for “typical” children who otherwise are having no difficulties with language. And these challenging details are not the same across languages. It turns out that if some detail of language is tricky for a child with typical language development, it will be doubly so for children with DLD. This leads to what we refer to as an “exaggerated linguistic profile” in DLD. For example, early on, all English-speaking children have difficulty with grammatical word endings such as “s” in “hugs” and “ed” in “hugged.” For children with DLD these already-challenging aspects of the language become especially problematic. The examples just given for Italian and Swedish follow the same pattern: in those languages, they represent weak spots even for children with typical language development. For children with DLD, the problems become amplified.

We can see, then, that children with DLD do not make strange, unnatural errors. These children remain true to the language they are learning. Even when they make errors, the errors are logical given the characteristics of their input language.

These observations are especially relevant when a child with DLD is acquiring more than one language. The severity of the language disorder does not increase if a child is faced with learning, say, English as well as Spanish. However, the profile of strengths and weaknesses shown by the child will not be the same in the two languages. For example, when attempting to say “Daddy hugs her every day,” a child speaking English might omit the “s” in “hugs” whereas when speaking Spanish the same child might use the correct verb form but use “him” instead of “her” or might omit the word altogether. Such a pattern is not a confusion between two languages, but simply a child with DLD being especially vulnerable to the most fragile details of each language. By seeking the assistance of professionals who are fluent speakers of each of the child’s languages, parents and teachers can likely receive the most detailed assessment of the child’s abilities and the most appropriate plan for clinical and educational services.


References

  1. Bortolini, U., Arfé, B., Caselli, M. C., Degasperi, L., Deevy, P., & Leonard, L. (2006). Clinical markers for specific language impairment in Italian: The contribution of clitics and nonword repetition. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 41, 695–712.
  2. Hansson, K., Nettelbladt, U., & Leonard, L. (2000). Specific language impairment in Swedish: The status of verb morphology and word order. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 43, 848–864.
  3. Leonard, L. (2014). Specific language impairment across languages. Child Development Perspectives, 8, 1–5.
  4. Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M.B. (2011). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD, Paul Brookes.