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Identifying Specific Language Impairment in Bilingual Children: Are Executive Function Tasks Discriminating?

Racha Zebib, Laetitia de Almeida, Sandrine Ferré, Eléonore Morin, Philippe Prévost, Christophe dos Santos & Laurie Tuller (INSERM U930 ‘Imagerie et cerveau’ – Université François-Rabelais de Tours)


Bilingualism; Specific Language Impairment; Executive Function; Assessment.

The number of schoolchildren in France growing up with French and another language is constantly increasing; yet identifying Specific Language Impairment (SLI) in these children remains very difficult. In fact, French speech and language pathologists are generally not capable of assessing the first language of these children and disentangling language deficits due to SLI from difficulties related to typical L2 acquisition is often very complicated. Studies comparing children with SLI and L2 children have revealed important similarities in linguistic performance ([6] [13], a.o.). These similarities often lead to misdiagnosis. One possible direction for identifying SLI in bilingual children is assessing their nonlinguistic ability. Previous studies suggest in fact that children with SLI show deficits in some Executive Functions (EF) such as attention, inhibition, shifting and working memory (WM) ([10] [7] [9], see [11] for a review). In the present study, we compare Bilingual children with SLI (Bi-SLI) and Bilingual Typically Developing children (Bi-TD) on WM (visuo-spatial short term memory, complex working memory and verbal short term memory), selective attention, inhibition and shifting tasks. Language and executive function tasks were administered to Turkish-French and Portuguese-French children aged 5;6 to 8;11 years. Results from 20 Bi-TD children and 10 BI-SLI children, L1 Turkish or Portuguese and L2 French, (data from 22 other children are currently being processed) reveal lower performance in Bi-SLI children on WM and in particular on verbal short-term memory which was significantly correlated to language measures. However, none of the nonverbal tasks distinguished the groups, although these same tasks were shown to be discriminating in a previous study [8]. No difference was found between the Turkish-French and the Portuguese-French children on any EF tasks.

These results confirm those obtained in previous studies showing verbal short-term memory deficits in children with SLI ([1] [2]; a.o.). They fail however to support the hypothesis of nonverbal WM and EF deficits in Bi-SLI children. This latter result does not contradict however the hypothesis of subtle nonverbal deficits in Monolingual SLI children (see [11]) as it may be explained by the hypothesis of enhanced WM and EF in bilinguals ([3] [4] [5] [8] [12], a.o.). Bilingualism may have boosted the nonverbal abilities of children with SLI, reducing the gap between their performance and performance of Bi-TD children.



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