Magazine article Science News

Language Disorder Tied to Sound Perception

Magazine article Science News

Language Disorder Tied to Sound Perception

Article excerpt

The conversational stream of daily life may flow by so quickly that it drowns out the ability of some children to distinguish discrete sounds and words and, as a result, to make sense of speech, a new study suggests.

An impairment of this type may set the stage for specific language impairment (SLI), a marked inability to use and understand speech that occurs in as many as 1 in 20 children, reports a research team led by neuroscientist Beverly A. Wright of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"This study provides a basis for early identification of [specific language impairment] and helps us to define the condition more precisely," says coauthor Michael M. Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco.

The finding also coincides with evidence that SLI involves a broad range of problems, such as difficulties in pronouncing sounds of all kinds (SN: 2/4/95, p. 70). Other investigators, however, theorize that SLI stems from disturbances in brain circuits devoted specifically to grammar.

Wright's group studied eight children diagnosed with SLI and eight youngsters who displayed good language skills. The participants averaged 8 years of age. Each listened to a brief tone that was presented just before, during, or just after either of two "masking" sounds, one of a frequency similar to the tone and the other of a contrasting frequency.

In similar-frequency masking trials, language-proficient kids found it easiest to detect a tone that preceded the masking sound and hardest to detect a tone that occurred simultaneously with it. …

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