Identifying specific language impairment in deaf children acquiring British Sign Language: Implications for theory and practice

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Abstract

This paper presents the first ever group study of specific language impairment (SLI) in users of sign language. A group of 50 children were referred to the study by teachers and speech and language therapists. Individuals who fitted pre-determined criteria for SLI were then systematically assessed. Here, we describe in detail the performance of 13 signing deaf children aged 5–14 years on normed tests of British Sign Language (BSL) sentence comprehension, repetition of nonsense signs, expressive grammar and narrative skills, alongside tests of non-verbal intelligence and fine motor control. Results show these children to have a significant language delay compared to their peers matched for age and language experience. This impaired development cannot be explained by poor exposure to BSL, or by lower general cognitive, social, or motor abilities. As is the case for SLI in spoken languages, we find heterogeneity within the group in terms of which aspects of language are affected and the severity of the impairment. We discuss the implications of the existence of language impairments in a sign language for theories of SLI and clinical practice.

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