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Specific Language Impairment in Bilingual Children: A longitudinal study

ISF 779/10 



PI1 – Sharon Armon-Lotem, BIU

PI2 – Joel Walters, BIU


Coordinator – Peri Iluz-Cohen

Migrations in the past two decades have led to dramatic increases in the number of children being raised with two or more languages in multilingual communities. Typically-developing bilingual children are known to produce structures resembling those of children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI), making the identification of SLI in bilingual children a challenge both methodologically and clinically and leading to over- and under-diagnosis of language impairment. The main objective of the proposed research, informed in different ways by usage-based and generative theories of acquisition, is to profile bilingual SLI (BISLI) by longitudinally studying the linguistic and cognitive abilities of bilingual children with typical language development (TLD) and with SLI from different home languages as they move from preschool into elementary school. We assume that impairment should exist in both languages although it may manifest itself in different ways in the two languages, depending on the linguistic features in each language.


The central questions are: (1) How can linguistic indicators of SLI be identified in both languages of a child, given that it may be manifest differently in each language? Do these manifestations change with extended exposure to L2? (2) To what extent do bilingual children with SLI children differ from bilingual children with TLD and monolingual children with SLI in terms of impairments? (3) How can the manifestations of SLI and typical bilingual development be differentiated given the fact that some of the same linguistic markers are characteristic of both typically-developing bilingualism and SLI? The longitudinal approach to the study of Bilingual SLI proposed here will also contribute to an understanding of the emergentist-innate controversy by looking at the role of input and unique errors (not traceable to input) vs. the role of innate abilities in this population, by observing change or persistence of specific indicators for SLI.


Sequential bilingual children from immigrant backgrounds, where one language is spoken at home and L2/Hebrew is acquired after age three at preschool/school, are targeted. Data will be gathered at the outset (Year 1) from 120 kindergarten children with TLD and 40 kindergarten children with SLI, ages 5-6, half English-Hebrew and half Russian-Hebrew bilinguals. A third of the TLD children (40) will be L1 dominant (with L2 below norm), a third will be L2 dominant (with L1 below norm), and a third will be balanced bilinguals (both languages within monolingual norms). All children with SLI will be below norm on standardized tests in both languages. Half of the children in each group will be followed into Grades 1 and 2 (Years 2 and 3) with a subset of the test battery used in kindergarten to examine development across three points in time. Four domains are investigated: 1. Syntax and its interface with morphology (sentence imitation); 2. Narrative abilities (bilingual story retelling); 3. Phonological processing (nonword repetition); 4. Executive functions (short-term memory, shifting and inhibition). These are complemented by demographic and sociolinguistic data from parent interviews (age, length of L2 exposure, birth order, family size, SES as well as parent’s evaluation of the child’s ethnolinguistic identity, social preferences, attitudes towards speakers and languages and academic achievement. This wide scope will allow exploration of typical and atypical development as well as the impact of bilingual linguistic proficiency and cognitive abilities in preschool years on academic achievement in the first year of school.

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