Word-learning difficulties in adults with DLD

McGregor, K. K., Arbisi-Kelm, T., Eden, N., & Oleson, J. (2020). The word learning profile of adults with developmental language disorder. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments, 5, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/2396941519899311

Aim of the paper:

Adults with DLD have difficulty learning new words. The authors looked at whether this is due to problems in encoding the word when learning or if it was because of word form deficits. Word form deficits refer to errors made with word endings, such as using a different suffix. The correct word is recalled, but appears differently to the original word. The authors also looked at whether gender would predict the performance of participants when learning the words. Previous research has suggested that women are better at encoding and retaining words than men. Participants included 20 adults with DLD, and 19 typically developing (TD) adults. Both the DLD and TD groups had 10 women each. They had to learn 15 words. Their retention was then measured by reviewing the number of words they can recall. This was done after a day, a week and a month after learning.

What was found:

- Adults with DLD were able to encode words into their long-term memory. However, they required 39% more exposure to the words than TD adults.

- The DLD group commonly made errors related to word forms. These errors increased when the time between learning and review increased. On the other hand, there were few errors with linking words to the objects they referred to.

- There were no significant differences found with retention abilities between the DLD and TD groups. Both groups presented similar performance levels at all three intervals.

- However, in both groups, women displayed greater retention levels compared to men.

What does this mean?

The findings indicate that the word-learning difficulties adults with DLD experience is partially due to problems in encoding of the word forms into long term memory. The authors’ previous research also has similar findings, supporting this conclusion. The difficulty in encoding word forms may be due to deficits in their procedural memory. The differences between men and women have been attributed to several possibilities. These include women’s stronger declarative memory systems, which compensates for the deficits in their procedural memory. Procedure memory deficits are thought to be present in individuals with DLD. Another possibility concerns a gene related to the creation of oestrogen which is related to dyslexia and speech sound disorders. The findings highlight that language learning interventions would be useful for adults if they have increased training to match the performance of their TD peers. Additionally, these interventions should focus on helping adults with DLD improve their proficiency with word forms. The focus on word forms have been found to be beneficial to learning.

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