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Morphological, Syntactic, and Pragmatic Representation and Processing in Bilingual Children with Specific Language Impairments

ISF 938




PI1 – Jonathan Fine, BIU

PI2 – Sharon Armon-Lotem, BIU


Coordinator – Efrat Harel

Despite the large numbers of bilinguals in the world and widespread migrations of the 1990s, the study of bilingualism in populations with developmental and language disorders has remained a neglected area of research. As a result of this neglect, folk wisdom reigns, carrying with it the view that bilingual children with language disorders should be educated in a single language, often not the language of the home.


The study examined SLI (special language impairment) and bilingualism, to assess the relative contribution of each to the child’s linguistic representations and their underlying processes. We intend to look at the interface of SLI and bilingualism from a variety of perspectives, exploring primarily morpho-syntax, pragmatics, and discourse, as well as lexical, phonological, and sub-lexical processing.


SLI and developing bilingualism show some of the same linguistic phenomena, including but not limited to incomplete or undeveloped production in the areas of inflectional morphology, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and temporal processing. We intend to explore various ways of explaining SLI and describe how SLI interacts with a variety of bilingual phenomena, especially codeswitching and fluency.


The central questions are:  (1) How do bilingual SLI children make use of their bilingualism, (2) how do the child’s two languages compare given SLI deficits and linguistic differences across languages, and (3) how do underlying processing impairments, linguistic representations, and sociopragmatic factors find expression in the language production of  bilingual SLI children? By investigating how bilingualism interacts with SLI, the proposed research addresses questions about whether bilingual children are linguistically and cognitively different than monolinguals. Specifically, we will examine the extent to which bilingual SLI children’s two languages are differentiated syntactically, pragmatically and phonologically.


English-Hebrew study

48 bilingual children, all successive English-Hebrew bilinguals ages 4-7, were identified in language preschools and regular schools in Beit Shemesh. All were immigrant children with at least 2 years of exposure to the L2 in Hebrew-speaking preschool programs, who came from the same SES. All children were screened again, at the time of the study by our research assistants, trained speech clinicians, for both languages using standardized instruments where available, e.g., CELF Preschool 2 for English (Wiig, Secord, & Semel 2004), Goralnik for Hebrew (Goralnik 1995). Following common practice, the cut off point for atypical development was at least one SD below norm on the CELF and at least 1.5 SD below norm on the Goralnik. This screening showed that about half of the children were dominant in one language, scoring within norms for only one of their languages. These children are assumed either to have not yet acquired L2 or show evidence of L1 language loss. The screening thus distinguished between children who showed typical development in both languages (TD), children who showed atypical development in both languages (A-TD), and children who showed typical development in one of their languages (e.g., English - E-TD, Hebrew – H-TD). All subjects were recorded for naturalistic data and tested using a battery of tasks developed for the present project to target the use of verb inflections, prepositions and articles. Findings from this population have already been presented at several scientific meetings, and appeared in chapters and papers, positioning us as a leading group in this area and yielding much interest in the project. This interest has led to a submission of a proposal for a COST Action by the first PI (Armon-Lotem) on “Language Impairment in a Multilingual Society: Linguistic Patterns and the Road to Assessment” which is currently waiting for approval.


Russian-Hebrew study

Due to difficulties in obtaining parental approval only 9 bilingual Russian-Hebrew SLI subjects, ages 4-6, were identified in language preschools in Netanya and Petah Tikva. All subjects were drawn from bilingual backgrounds and have been diagnosed with SLI by a qualified speech clinician. They were matched with 8 typically developing bilinguals from adjacent preschools. All children have been tested by our research assistants, trained speech clinicians, using standardized tests in Hebrew. Since there are no standardized tests in Russian (neither in Israel nor in Russia), we asked a certified Russian speaking speech clinician to evaluate their spontaneous speech samples. They have all been recorded for naturalistic data and tested using the battery of tasks developed for the present project to target the use of verb inflections, prepositions in Russian and verb inflections, prepositions and articles in Hebrew. Additional spontaneous samples were collected from 26 TD children: 18 in both languages and 8 in Russian only.



Significant quantitative differences were found between the TD bilinguals and bilinguals with SLI in the proportion of inflection errors in both languages. Some errors which involve omissions were unique to the ATD group, however. For preposition use, no significant difference was found between TD and ATD children in the proportion of errors in English-Hebrew bilinguals but a significant difference was found in Russian-Hebrew bilinguals. Both TD and ATD children made errors in the use of prepositions due to code interference, but the ATD children also showed many errors which could not be explained by crosslinguistic influence. This was true for both languages. A significant difference was found in both languages between obligatory and free prepositions. That is, both groups made errors which reflect crosslinguistic interference, but the proportion of errors for ATD children was higher than reported for monolingual SLI. Moreover, while code interference in the use of prepositions is typical of bilingual children, the unsystematic substitution and omission errors in the use of obligatory prepositions are unique to ATD.

Restriction of the unsystematic substitutions and omissions to obligatory prepositions can be explained by their central grammatical role in case assignment, with a limited contribution to the semantics of the sentence. This is similar to the substitution of –ing in English in places where the inflection does not add to the meaning of the sentence. On the other hand, the inflections omitted and substituted in Hebrew carry the semantics of person and tense. Nonetheless, in the bilingual context, when L1 has no person features (as in English), it seems that the ATD children associate suffixes with tense only, which is also encoded in Hebrew by the interdigited vowel pattern, making the suffix semantically redundant. Thus, we suggest that the unsystematic omissions and substitutions emerge from a difficulty in encoding syntactic relations in the absence of semantic motivation.

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