Relative clause comprehension in Cantonese-speaking children with and without developmental language disorder

Lai, J., Chan, A., & Kidd, E. (2023). Relative clause comprehension in Cantonese-speaking children with and without developmental language disorder. PLoS One, 18: e0288021. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0288021.
Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), present in 2 out of every 30 children, affects primarily oral language abilities and development in the absence of associated biomedical conditions. We report the first experimental study that examines relative clause (RC) comprehension accuracy and processing (via looking preference) in Cantonese-speaking children with and without DLD, testing the predictions from competing domain-specific versus domain-general theoretical accounts. We compared children with DLD (N = 22) with their age-matched typically-developing (TD) children (AM-TD, N = 23) aged 6;6–9;7 and language-matched (and younger) TD children (YTD, N = 21) aged 4;7–7;6, using a referent selection task. Within-subject factors were: RC type (subject-RCs (SRCs) versus object-RCs (ORCs); relativizer (classifier (CL) versus relative marker ge3 RCs). Accuracy measures and looking preference to the target were analyzed using generalized linear mixed effects models. Results indicated Cantonese children with DLD scored significantly lower than their AM-TD peers in accuracy and processed RCs significantly slower than AM-TDs, but did not differ from the YTDs on either measure. Overall, while the results revealed evidence of a SRC advantage in the accuracy data, there was no indication of additional difficulty associated with ORCs in the eye-tracking data. All children showed a processing advantage for the frequent CL relativizer over the less frequent ge3 relativizer. These findings pose challenges to domain-specific representational deficit accounts of DLD, which primarily explain the disorder as a syntactic deficit, and are better explained by domain-general accounts that explain acquisition and processing as emergent properties of multiple converging linguistic and non-linguistic processes.
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