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Review of  Understanding Children with Language Problems

Reviewer: Phaedra Royle
Book Title: Understanding Children with Language Problems
Book Author: Shula Chiat
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 12.1542

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Chiat, Shula (2000) Understanding Children with Language Problems,
Cambridge University Press, 298 pp., Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics,
Hardcover: $54.95, Paperback: $19.95.

Phaedra Royle, Department of Linguistics, Universit� de Montr�al

A description of the book's purpose and contents can be found in
the Linguist Issue 11.2086.

Chiat's book "Understanding Children with Language Problems" fills a void
in the speech pathology/psycholinguistic literature on language disorders.
The author uses an original approach for a monograph type book. Chiat
presents a number of case studies of children with language acquisition
disorders. These studies use as a springboard for discussion data from
spontaneous speech in order to familiarize us with the particular problems
the child is faced with when speaking English. The author then leads us
through different experiments devised to understand what aspect of
language processing is failing in each child. Finally, Chiat presents a
discussion of what may be the possible cause of the linguistic deficit in
each child. This approach is refreshing since it allows the author to
present us with spontaneous speech data, on the one hand, and, on the
other hand, to discuss the implications of different linguistic tasks in
finding the root of the problems in language output in these children.
Thus the data is not only presented descriptively but is also empirically
analyzed and discussed theoretically.

The book has the following structure:

The Introduction presents to us a number of people with different types
of language impairment. It outlines the purpose of the book "to bring
[the language of speech impaired subjects] to life: to show how it is
limited, or odd, or baffling, but also expressive, or moving or,
paradoxically, articulate.[...] Focussing on the individual child, we
explore the particular ways in which language processing is limited of
blocked, and the particular ways in which the child has negotiated the

Part I. Problems with words: is divided into six chapters. The first
What's in a word, briefly discusses linguistic concepts, such as
syntactic, semantic and phonological information, mental lexicon and
homophony, used when discussing word acquisition and use.

The child's road to words, the second chapter, presents a review of the
literature on normal language acquisition in English. Chiat pays special
attention to the question of how a child actually tunes into the
syntactic, semantic and phonological features of words discussing stress
patterns, bootstrapping, focus and meaning biases which are all thought
to be critical component in the process of word acquisition.

In the following chapter, Blocks on the road to words, Chiat discusses
different components that could be damaged in the input or output
processing of words, and that could be faulty in children with language
impairment. These faulty component would thus lead to inadequate word
representations and thus have repercussions on the child's language.

Chapter four, Exploring the blockage, presents different psycholinguistic
tasks (phonological discrimination, lexical decision, word-to-picture
mapping, picture-sorting, internal judgement, cued naming and repetition)
aimed at finding insight into the linguistic capacities and deficits
found in language impaired children. Each task is accompanied with a
discussion of what components of language the task might is designed to
tap and what might be good follow-ups to these in order to refine the
analysis of the deficit.

In 'Dant always day dings': Problems with phonology, Chiat presents
children with phono-articulatory problems. She discusses the possible
sources of these problems and presents tasks aimed at verifying which of
these components is altered.

Finally, in Chapter 6 ('Stip or step or slip or what?': problems with
lexical processing) the author presents children with lexical deficits
that go beyond the phono-articulatory level. Again, possible sources of
the impairment are discussed and a number of tasks aimed at verifying the
use of different linguistic components are presented.

Part II, Grappling with verb structure, deals with the issue of verb
structure in language impairment In Chapter 7, Translating events, Chiat
discusses the process of going from a real, perceived event to describing
it verbally. Linguistic concepts such as event, source, and goal and how
they are encoded into the verb structure through thematic structure. She
also discusses the importance of word order in English syntax but also how
this structure can translate into a rhythmic structure that is salient in
the process of sentence perception.

Chapter 8, Growing verb structures, presents an overview of syntax
acquisition studies, theory and data for English. Here we find a
discussion of argument structures and their filtering from the speech
stream. The notion of bootstrapping is also addressed with a discussion
of the semantic, phonological and syntactic types of bootstrapping and
how they feed into each other during the acquisition of verbs.

In the following chapter (Shortfalls with verbs) Chiat discusses the link
between language impairment and reduced verb use (in terms of vocabulary
range). She then proceeds to discuss the possible bootstrapping problems
that might affect the child's ability to appropriately lexicalize a
verb. Finally, this chapter includes descriptions of a number of
psycholinguistic tasks aimed at identifying the specific language
problems that could be the cause for this difficulty with verbs.

In, 'Thing out. Tip in there': problems with verb processing, Chiat
presents us with a subject who has difficulties relating events. Again,
different tasks are marshaled in order to find out exactly what
Travis's problems stem from. The author concludes that the
processing problem stems from a deficit in the phonological input.

Part III. Missing function morphemes, presents language learners who have
difficulties in producing function morphemes. In Filling out sentences,
the eleventh chapter, Chiat proposes that function morphemes are
phonologically weak in English (they are typically unstressed and
monosyllabic, they can undergo reduction or contraction). They are also
less salient semantically than content words. However, they are
obligatory. This chapter also reviews studies from other languages
showing that some types of function morphemes pose difficulties for
language impaired children. These studies show that children with
language impairment are inconsistent in producing function morphemes but
can sometimes overgeneralize their use. A discussion of function morpheme
acquisition is presented. The author stresses the importance of
phonological salience in their acquisition but also the fact that
stronger semantic representations will also help the acquisition of
certain function morphemes (for example, morphemes that conflate a number
of "notions", like 'was' 3ps past, will be more difficult to acquire).

Chapter 12, 'That one not working, see': problems with auxiliary verb
processing, presents the case of Ruth, a language impaired girl who
often, but not always, omits auxiliary verbs. She also produces
inappropriate forms (such as 'won't' for 'don't') in the appropriate
syntactic slot. Again, different tasks are presented in order to come to
an explanation of Ruth's deficit. Chiat concludes that Ruth's deficit
stems from a phonological input deficit.

Part IV --Hidden Meanings, Baffling Meanings--presents cases
of semantic-pragmatic disorder. In chapter 13, The roots of meaning,
Chiat discusses the literature on "the packaging of experience" by
children. Difficulties in affective and mental experience result in
autism, a disorder that can affect language acquisition and use. However,
there are also children with semantic-pragmatic disorder (or pragmatic
language impairment) who are not autistic but who do give too much, too
little or inappropriate information when communicating.

Chapter 14, '[ae] you don't tell nobody this?': strengths in pragmatic
processing, is a review of language production in children with a
language-disorder in order to verify if they do have a pragmatic deficit.
Chiat finds that language-disorder do not necessarily occur concurrently
with pragmatic disorders.

In the following chapter, 'I can speak Chinese: but I can't speak
Chinese': problems in pragmatic processing, a study of a child with a
pragmatic disorder highlights the differences between this type of
deficit and the ones presented previously in the book. Again, a number of
tasks aimed at refining the description of the disorder are presented
along with a discussion of results. This chapter is not so much
conclusive as it is an invitation to further research in this area of
language impairment.

A final chapter, Endpoint and springboard, wraps up the book and
highlights the interconnectedness of phonological, semantic and syntactic
bootstrapping in lexical acquisition.

Further readings are proposed in the areas of language impairment, speech
impairment, normal language development, the relationship between syntax,
semantics and phonology, meaning in and outside language, and theories
and models of language processing and wider cognitive processing.

The index contains references to terms, authors, figures, tables and

The book is written in a style accessible to readers who are unfamiliar
with the literature on speech-language pathology and linguistics while
maintaining a level of discussion that is not diluted or simplified. In
particular, the discussion of various psycholinguistic tasks aimed at
finding the root of specific language problems is well constructed and is
a good source of information on different types of tasks that can be
devised not in psycholinguistic research. The descriptions and
discussions of tasks include hypothesis about which cognitive functions
they may and may not tap and on alternate or further tests that could
refine or inform results from the tasks presented. These tasks also have
the potential of being extended outside the realm of speech pathology and
could conceivably be used for first and second language acquisition
research. Thus this book, or chapters from it, could be used as a text
for a number of introductory courses in psycholinguistics, speech
pathology, first- and second-language acquisition and language studies.
This monograph also has potential uses for speech pathologists and
teachers working with language impaired children who wish to expand their
knowledge of language disorders and their causes. A number of the
chapters in this monograph also have the potential to be used as case
studies for speech-pathology students wanting to work with language

The monograph does have a few drawbacks however. Chiat does not define
the type or types of language impairment that the subjects suffer from
(excepting the final chapters on pragmatic deficits). She uses the vague
term 'language impairment' throughout the book. Do these children all
have some form of specific language impairment (a. k. a. developmental
language impairment or DLI) or do they have differing pathologies?

In some instances, linguistic terms are not defined or only summarily
discussed. This way of proceeding is probably due to constraints on the
manuscript size. However, I have generally found that students of speech
pathology have very little bearing on linguistic theory. A more thorough
account of these would help them understand the principles underlying the
structure of language.

The author also presents little discussion of theories of language
impairment, even though the results on the tasks presented would allow
for us to test different accounts that have been presented in the
literature. In the same vein, the bibliography on language impairment and
the further reading sections are a bit dated. Many on-line and off-line
psycholinguistic studies have been carried out on language impairment
in recent years and it would be helpful to young researchers to have
access to this information.

Chiat also argues that the fact that language impaired people sometimes
produce a same word with or without inflection (such as plural) shows that
they know the rule but that they have not realized that it is obligatory.
However, Goad (1999) has shown that plural-like forms produced by English
speakers with developmental language impairment (DLI) do not follow the
morphophonological rules of English (such as voicing assimilation and
vowel epenthesis). Goad concludes, reasonably, that when speakers with DLI
produce these forms, they are not using the normal rules of language but
rather compensatory methods that could include something akin to
compounding. Finally, Chiat seems to prefer an account of developmental
language impairment that rests strongly on the principle that the
processing of auditory input is impaired and that function morphemes that
are phonologically weak in English will be more difficult to process. She
argues that cross-linguistic data support this point of view (citing
Leonard et al., 1987 for cross-linguistic support). However, a number of
cross-linguistic studies have shown that salience is not a strong factor
in the correct production of morphology (Crago & Allan, Dalalakis, Fukuda,
Rose & Royle, 1999). Rose & Royle (1999) have shown that the correct
production of French verbs in a sentence completion task is approximately
the same as that found for English speaking participants (see Gopnik 1999,
for a comparison of results), even though French verbal suffixes in the
past tense are phonologically 'strong' (i.e., they are stressed and
syllabic). I believe that even though a phonological processing deficit
could be a factor causing difficulty in language acquisition,
lexicalization and production, if cannot be the whole account for language
problems found cross-linguistically in children with DLI.


Crago, Martha B. & Allen, Stanley E. M. (1996) Building the case for
impairment in linguistic representation, in Rice, Mabel L. et al (Eds.)
Toward a Genetics of Language (pp. 261-289) Mahwah, NJ, USA: Lawrence

Dalalakis, Jenny E. (1999) Morphological representation in specific
language impairment: Evidence from Greek word formation, Folia
Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 51, 20-35.

Goad, Heather (1998) Plurals in DLI: Prosodic deficit or morphological
deficit? Language Acquisition: a Journal of Developmental Linguistics Vol
7 (2/4), 247-284.

Gopnik, Myrna (1999) Familial language impairment: More English evidence,
Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 51, 5-19.

Gopnik, Myrna, Dalalakis, Jenny E., Fukuda, Suzy E., Fukuda, Shinji,
Kehayia, Eva (1996) Genetic language impairment: Unruly grammars, in
Runciman, William G., Smith, John Maynard, & Dunbar, Robin I. M. (Eds)
Evolution of social behaviour patterns in primates and man. Proceedings
of The British Academy, Vol. 88, pp.223-249.

Leonard, Lawrence B. J., Sabbadini, Letizia, Leonard, Jeanette S., &
Volterra, Virginia (1987). Specific Language Impairment in children: a
cross-linguistic study. Brain and Language, 32, 233-52.

Rose, Yvan, & Royle, Phaedra (1999)Uninflected structures in familial
language impairment: Evidence from French, Folia Phoniatrica et
Logopaedica, 51, 70-90.

About the reviewer:
Phaedra Royle is a Ph.D. graduate from the D�partement de linguistique et
de traduction of the Universit� de Montr�al. Her thesis was a
psycholinguistic examination of word access in francophones with
developmental language impairment. She presently works as a post-doctoral
researcher for the Bilingual Canadian Dictionary Project.


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