Grammatical deficits within American English Dialects in children with and without DLD

Oetting, J. B., Berry, J. R., Gregory, K. D., Rivière, A. M., & McDonald, J. (2019). Specific language impairment in African American English and southern white English: Measures of tense and agreement with dialect-informed probes and strategic scoring. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 62(9), 3443-3461.

Aim of the paper:

Grammar difficulties are a feature of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). However, nonmainstream dialects of English, such as the African American English (AAE) and Southern White English (SWE), have differences in the expressions of different aspects of grammar, such as tense and agreement. This makes it difficult to adjust for the individual’s dialect differences when testing their use of grammar. Previous research has found that in AAE and SWE, children with DLD show differences in their use of grammar when compared to those without DLD. Yet, most studies used language samples making it difficult to control the dialect structures and context. This paper used four dialect-informed prompts targeting eight tense and agreement structures to examine whether there are tense and agreement deficits in children with DLD in AAE and SWE as well as examining effects of dialect, targeted grammatical structure, and scoring approach.

Tense: verbs that show the time something happened, or is going to happen (e.g., pushing, played)

Agreement: correspondence of one word with other words to which it relates (e.g., the bear was touching his ears)

What was found:

- Overall, kindergarteners with DLD who spoke AAE and SWE marked tense and agreement at a lower percentage than same dialect speaking kindergarteners without DLD.

- Effects of dialect and grammatical structure were found as the kindergarteners’ use of tense and agreement varied depending on their dialect and the grammar structure targeted.

- Effects of scoring approach were also found as different results were found depending on which scoring approach was used.

What does this mean?

The results suggest that tense and agreement deficits are present in children with DLD who speak AAE and SWE. As past tense deficits stood out the most, this element of grammar may be the most useful for clinicians to look for when identifying DLD in children who speak AAE and SWE. Although dialect informed prompts may be a useful tool for detecting DLD in the context of AAE and SWE, they should be combined with other assessment measures when making a diagnosis of DLD for increased accuracy. Nevertheless, the dialect-informed probes can be valuable in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a child’s language system, determining treatment goals, and monitoring treatment progress.

Where can I read this paper?

This paper is open access, which means everyone can read it. Please click here to find the full paper.