Language impairment in bilingual children


on the May 21, 2018

Published in Int. J. Lang. Commun. Disord.

Original research project led by Dr. Zebib

Identifying language impairment in bilingual children in France and in Germany


The detection of specific language impairment (SLI) in children growing up bilingually presents particular challenges for clinicians. Non-word repetition (NWR) and sentence repetition (SR) tasks have proven to be the most accurate diagnostic tools for monolingual populations, raising the question of the extent of their usefulness in different bilingual populations.

To determine the diagnostic accuracy of NWR and SR tasks that incorporate phonological/syntactic complexity as discussed in recent linguistic theory. The tasks were developed as part of the Language Impairment Testing in Multilingual Settings (LITMUS) toolkit, in two different national settings, France and Germany, and investigated children with three different home languages: Arabic, Portuguese and Turkish.

NWR and SR tasks developed in parallel were administered to 151 bilingual children, aged 5;6-8;11, in France and in Germany, to 64 children in speech-language therapy (SLT) and to 87 children not in SLT, whose first language (L1) was Arabic, Portuguese or Turkish. Children were also administered standardized language tests in each of their languages to determine likely clinical status (typical development (TD) or SLI), and parents responded to a questionnaire including questions about early and current language use (bilingualism factors) and early language development (risk factors for SLI). Monolingual controls included 47 TD children and 29 children with SLI. Results were subjected to inter-group comparisons, to diagnostic accuracy calculation, and to correlation and multiple regression analyses.

In accordance with previous studies, NWR and SR identified SLI in the monolingual children, yielding good to excellent diagnostic accuracy. Diagnostic accuracy in bilingual children was fair to good, generally distinguishing children likely to have SLI from children likely to have TD. Accuracy was necessarily linked to the determination of clinical status, which was based on standardized assessment in each of the child's languages. Positive early development, a composite risk factor for SLI, and not variables related to language exposure and use, generally emerged as the strongest predictor of performance on the two tasks, constituting additional, independent support for the efficacy of NWR and SR in identifying impairment in bilingual children.

NWR and SR tasks informed by linguistic theory are appropriate for use as part of the diagnostic process for identifying language impairment in bilingual children for whom the language of assessment is different from the home language, in diverse sociolinguistic contexts.


Bilingualism; diagnostic accuracy; non-word repetition; sentence repetition; specific language impairment

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