Syntax and working memory in children with DLD

Delage, H., & Frauenfelder, U. H. (2020). Relationship between working memory and complex syntax in children with Developmental Language Disorder. Journal of child language, 47(3), 600-632. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305000919000722


What was the aim?


Theories explaining DLD suggest language difficulties can occur in cognitive systems not primarily used for language. This study aims to look at the relationship between working memory and the processing of complex sentences. 28 French-speaking children with DLD and 48 controls, aged 5-14, were assessed with memory and linguistic tasks. For example, the children were asked to repeat back a list of digits or listen to a sentence and then pick the corresponding picture.


  • Working memory temporarily stores and manages information for cognitive functions.

  • Syntax involves grammatical structure and the arrangement of words and phrases into sentences.


What was found?


  • Working memory and syntax ability increase with age. However, progression was slower in children with DLD.

  • Children with DLD performed worse on syntax and working memory tasks than controls.

  • Syntax and working memory are closely related. For example, working memory problems limit the ability to form and process complex syntax for children with DLD.

  • Complex syntax depends on the child’s working memory ability.


What does it mean?


The result shows a strong predictive relationship between working memory and complex syntax. Children with DLD have working memory deficits and lower syntax capacities than children without language problems. Although working memory and syntax capacities increase with age, this must be taken with caution, as the study looked at different groups of children at different ages. Ideally, researchers should look at the same children over time. Despite this, the findings can have positive clinical implications. If deficits in working memory limit the syntax of children with DLD, then interventions can train working memory for children with DLD.


Where can I read this paper?


This paper is not open access. If you wish to read the full paper, please email E-DLD@bath.ac.uk and request a copy of the paper.