In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Specific Language Impairment

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Handbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Early Observations on the Language Disorder and Terminology
  • Definition
  • Prevalence
  • Persistence
  • Relationship with Other Disorders

Linguistics Specific Language Impairment
Cornelia Hamann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0110


Children with specific language impairment (SLI) have a developmental disorder characterized by below average performance in language tasks in the absence of cognitive or sensory impairments. The disorder is also known as “developmental dysphasia” or “primary language impairment” (PLI). SLI has been of great interest to clinicians, speech therapists, psycholinguists and, since the 1970s, also to linguists. The two main approaches to SLI are embedded in the generative/nativist versus the constructivist/connectionist approaches to language acquisition (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on “Acquisition of Language”). They respectively propose that the disorder is truly language specific in that the computational system itself is impaired or, alternatively, that the impairment is due to limitations in the mechanisms implicated in language processing. The former approach aims at providing evidence for a specific mechanism for language development, the latter at providing evidence for a general learning mechanism also implicated in language learning.

Introductory Works

There is probably only one “introductory” monograph dedicated to the study of SLI and that is Bishop 1997. The most comprehensive overview to date (not on textbook level, however) is Leonard 1998, which presents up-to-date (to publication) summaries and evaluations of research approaches and results from different languages. Brief overviews can be found in handbooks of language disorders or in comprehensive introductions to language acquisition, such as Guasti 2002.

  • Bishop, Dorothy V. M. 1997. Uncommon understanding. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    Starts from the assumption that SLI needs to be manifest in expressive and receptive language. Stresses semantic-pragmatic problems not directly linked to morpho-syntax.

  • Guasti, Maria Teresa. 2002. Dissociation between language and other cognitive abilities. In Language acquisition: The growth of grammar. By Maria Teresa Guasti, 375–397. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Gives a brief, clear overview about the phenomena, the problems, and the different suggestions for the causes of SLI.

  • Leonard, Laurence. 1998. Children with specific language impairment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Covers the definition, the criteria, the subgroups, the accounts, and the assumptions about the causes of SLI, the manifestations of language problems in different languages, and the data on possibly accompanying motor or cognitive deficits—up to publication date.

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