Nonword Repetition in Specific Language Impairment: More Than a Phonological Short-Term Memory Deficit

By Archibald, Lisa M. D.; Gathercole, Susan E. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Nonword Repetition in Specific Language Impairment: More Than a Phonological Short-Term Memory Deficit


Archibald, Lisa M. D., Gathercole, Susan E., Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


The possible role of phonological short-term memory in the nonword repetition deficit of children with specific language impairment (SLI) was investigated in a study comparing serial recall and nonword repetition of sequences of auditorily presented CV syllables. The SLI group showed impairments in both serial recall and nonword repetition relative to typically developing children of the same age, however the SLI deficit in nonword repetition was greater and persisted even when differences on an independent measure of short-term memory were taken into account. These findings cannot be readily explained in terms of a sole deficit in short-term memory, and point instead to differences between the serial recall and nonword repetition paradigms as potential factors contributing to this disorder of learning.

The capacity to repeat a novel phonological form such as woogalamic is one of the most basic and important language abilities. Every word we now know was once unfamiliar to us, and was learned, in part, via such a repetition attempt. The evidence linking nonword repetition and language learning abilities is now extensive. In particular, individuals who perform poorly on nonword repetition typically struggle to learn the phonological form of language. The evidence for this is now extensive. Individual differences studies of typically developing samples of children have established highly specific links between nonword repetition and knowledge of vocabulary of both the native language (e.g., Gathercole & Baddeley, 1989; Gupta, 2003) and foreign languages (e.g., Cheung, 1996; Masoura & Gathercole, 1999). Children's nonword repetition abilities are also highly associated with the speed of learning the phonological forms of new words under experimental conditions that control exposure to the novel tokens, although not to nonphonological aspects of learning such as the acquisition of semantic features (e.g., Gathercole, Service, Hitch, Adams, & Martin, 1999; Gupta, 2003). Finally, severe deficits of nonword repetition have been found to characterize several groups of children with particularly marked impairments of language learning, including individuals with specific reading disabilities (e.g., Snowling, 1983), Down's syndrome (e.g., Laws, 2004), and specific language impairment (SLI; e.g., Gathercole & Baddeley, 1990).

The co-occurrence of deficits in nonword repetition and SLI in particular has now been extensively documented (see, e.g., Conti-Ramsden, 2003; Dollaghan & Campbell, 1998; Edwards & Lahey, 1998; Montgomery, 2004). SLI is a relatively common developmental condition in which a child fails to develop language at the typical rate despite normal general intellectual abilities, adequate exposure to language, and in the absence of hearing impairments. Affected children have the greatest problems in learning word forms and the grammatical structure of language, with acquisition of semantics and pragmatics relatively spared (Leonard, 1998). Current interest in nonword repetition and SLI was sparked principally by Gathercole and Baddeley's findings in 1990 that a group of children with SLI had impairments in repeating lengthy nonwords that were even greater in magnitude than the language deficits that formed the basis for their diagnosis. The nonword repetition impairment has subsequently been established in many independent studies to be a hallmark of SLI (see Roy & Chiat, 2004, for review), and has been hailed both as a clinical indicator of SLI (Conti-Ramsden, 2003; Dollaghan & Campbell, 1998) and as a phenotypic marker of the genetic basis for SLI (Bishop, North, & Donlan, 1996) associated with abnormalities of chromosome 16q (SLI Consortium, 2004). The impairment is particularly compelling as it captures the language learning difficulties of individuals with SLI in a simple paradigm that mimics word learning.

The established links between nonword repetition and language learning has led to widespread interest in understanding the cognitive processes that underlie nonword repetition. …

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