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Verb argument structure deficits in Spanish-speaking preschoolers with specific language impairment who are English language learners


This research project evaluated a deficit observed in children with specific language impairment (SLI) across multiple languages: limitations in the production of verbs and arguments. A total of 100 Spanish-speaking preschoolers participated in this project. In the first study, children with SLI (n=20) were compared to age peers (n=20) and to younger language peers (n=20) in the production of target verbs and arguments in elicited tasks that manipulated verb argument structure complexity. Participants were asked to describe pictures and to repeat sentences with increasing number of arguments. In addition, they named pictures of common nouns and verbs and told two stories based on wordless picture books. Children with SLI had significantly lower scores than both control groups for the picture description and the sentence repetition tasks. Verb argument structure complexity played a significant role in the picture description task, indicating that all children omitted more target sentence constituents as complexity increased. This was more pronounced for children with SLI when producing sentences with three arguments. Verb argument structure complexity was not a significant factor for the sentence repetition task. Task and methodological differences partly explain this discrepancy. In addition, although both noun and verb naming scores were comparable between the affected children and their language peers, children with SLI used a lower number of lexical verbs in their spontaneous language. The second study participants were English language learners. There were 20 children with SLI and 20 age peers, with comparable levels of English vocabulary. Children responded to the Spanish picture description and sentence repetition tasks used in study 1 and to the English versions of the same tasks. In both Spanish and English, children with SLI had significantly lower scores than age peers. In addition, verb argument structure complexity was a significant factor for the picture description task in Spanish but not for the other tasks. These findings suggest that measures of production of verbs and arguments might help in the identification of SLI in the first and second language of young children. Results are discussed in terms of cross-linguistic differences and potential use in assessment.

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