Language acquisition of early sequentially bilingual children is moderated by short‐term memory for order in developmental language disorder: Findings from the HelSLI study Journal Articles uri icon

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  • AbstractBackgroundThe role of domain‐general short‐term memory (STM) in language development remains controversial. A previous finding from the HelSLI study on children with developmental language disorder (DLD) suggested that not only verbal but also non‐verbal STM for temporal order is related to language acquisition in monolingual children with DLD.AimsTo investigate if a similar relationship could be replicated in a sample of sequentially bilingual children with DLD. In addition to the effect of age, the effect of cumulative second language (L2) exposure was studied.Methods & ProceduresSixty‐one 4–6‐year‐old bilingual children with DLD and 63 typically developing (TD) bilingual children participated in a cross‐sectional study conducted in their L2. Children completed novel game‐like tests of visual and auditory non‐verbal serial STM, as well as tests of cognitive functioning and language. Interactions of STM for order with age and exposure to L2 (Finnish) were explored as explanatory variables.Outcomes & ResultsFirst, the improvement of non‐verbal serial STM with age was faster in sequentially bilingual TD children than in bilingual children with DLD. A similar effect was observed for L2 exposure. However, when both age and exposure were considered simultaneously, only age was related to the differential growth of non‐verbal STM for order in the groups. Second, only in children with DLD was better non‐verbal serial STM capacity related to an improvement in language scores with age and exposure.Conclusions & ImplicationsThe results suggest that, as previously found in Finnish monolingual children, domain‐general serial STM processing is also compromised in bilingual children with DLD. Further, similar to the monolingual findings, better non‐verbal serial STM was associated with greater language improvement with age and exposure, but only in children with DLD, in the age range studied here. Thus, in clinical settings, assessing non‐verbal serial STM of bilingual children could improve the detection of DLD and understanding of its non‐linguistic symptoms.What this paper addsWhat is already known on the subject Both phonological and non‐verbal STM have been associated with DLD in monolingual and sequentially bilingual children. Monolingual children with DLD have also shown slower non‐verbal serial STM development than TD children. What this study adds to existing knowledge Sequentially bilingual TD children's non‐verbal serial STM improves more between ages 4 and 7 years than that of their peers with DLD, replicating a finding for monolingual children with DLD. Better non‐verbal serial STM was especially associated with early receptive language development in sequentially bilingual children with DLD. L2 exposure showed largely comparable effects with age. These results support the hypothesis that a domain‐general serial STM deficit is linked to DLD. What are the potential or actual clinical implications of this work? Non‐verbal assessment of STM for serial order in sequentially bilingual children with DLD could benefit the development of better tailored therapeutic interventions.


  • Service, Maarit Elisabet
  • Lahti‐Nuuttila, Pekka
  • Laasonen, Marja
  • Smolander, Sini
  • Kunnari, Sari
  • Arkkila, Eva
  • Service, Elisabet

publication date

  • September 2021