Specific Language Impairment (SLI) Language Delay
Specific language impairment (SLI) is a term that is used to refer to “a child whose language development is substantially below age level, for no apparent cause” (Bishop, 1997). SLI has also been referred to as delayed language; however, the use of the term delayed language implies that the child is developing language but only at a slower pace. While the linguistic characteristics are similar for both delayed language and SLI, delayed language is a more appropriate term for recognizing a preschool child’s language difficulties, and SLI is thought to be more appropriate to refer to an older child who is experiencing this type of language difficulty (Whitehurst & Fischel, 1994).
Children with language delay/SLI typically have normal-range hearing and nonverbal intelligence and no developmental disabilities, yet there are noticeable difficulties in both the receptive and expressive language competencies (Montgomery, 2002). They typically are able to score within the normal range on standardized nonverbal intelligence tests.
Linguistic characteristics of children with SLI involve limitations in each of the five aspects of language knowledge (Fey, Long, & Finestack, 2003; Yont, Hewitt, & Miccio, 2002). Children with SLI have been described as having difficulty in conversations; others may have limitations in syntax or grammar and morphology. Phonological disorders have also been documented among SLI children. Semantic development may also be impaired (Yont et al., 2002). Compared to normally developing children’s speech, the vocabularies of children with SLI are smaller (semantic), and their sentences are less complex, contain frequent grammatical errors, and show less variation (syntactic). A difficulty with the pragmatic aspect of language is also evident among children with SLI or language delay, who are likely to have difficulty in maintaining a conversation and may have problems understanding others or being understood. They are less likely to engage in dramatic play. In addition, children with language delay are likely to focus talk on the here and now rather than the past or future, which may indicate a limitation of symbolic representation.
SLI or language delay is usually first identified in the preschool years when a child exhibits difficulty in conversational settings. As a child enters elementary school, further language impairment may be noted when the child experiences difficulty in comprehending and composing both oral and written language (Fey et al., 2003). In addition, their difficulties in conversation may show up in general problems in interacting with other children at school and in the community.
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