November 27, 2007 Feature

International Research in Child Language Disorders

There are many good reasons to work professionally with colleagues in other countries. In my case, I wanted to broaden my understanding of child language disorders. Almost from the beginning of my research on the grammatical error patterns of children with specific language impairment (SLI) in the 1970s, I suspected that the patterns I observed did not represent the core grammatical deficit in SLI—instead, the patterns reflected the manifestation of the core deficit in English. This suspicion was reinforced by clinicians outside of the United States who noted that translating English-language tests into their own language was often unsuccessful because the English features being assessed did not exist in their language, or they existed in the language but were never a problem area for children.

In 1980, thanks to an international conference, I took a meaningful step in the direction of cross-linguistic studies, which have been an important part of my scholarly endeavors ever since. I now can now begin to answer key questions about SLI in children who speak languages other than English.

Critical Considerations

Others considering research that crosses language and cultural boundaries may want to consider several questions before embarking on their projects:

  • Does the culture of the target country recognize the communication disorder I wish to investigate?
  • Are there professionals in the country who assess and treat individuals with this disorder?
  • Is there a base of knowledge about typical functioning in this communication area (e.g., typical language development in the target language)?
  • Are there capable colleagues who are native speakers of the language with whom I can collaborate?
  • Do I know enough about the target language (and culture) to ask meaningful research questions that can advance our understanding of the communication disorder?

In my own case, I could answer the first three questions affirmatively, as my collaborative research has been conducted in Hong Kong (Cantonese), Hungary (Hungarian), Israel (Hebrew), Italy (Italian), Sweden (Swedish), United States (English, Spanish) and, most recently, Finland (Finnish). Each of these cultures recognizes a condition described as a language impairment. Each has a profession of speech-language pathology, some degree of published research on typical language development, and, in the best circumstances, standardized tests of language ability.

Thanks to many highly skilled colleagues in these locations who were willing to collaborate on cross-linguistic research on SLI, I could also answer the fourth question affirmatively. Without their participation, the research could not have been conducted, and each has been or will be a co-author (including first author) in our research publications.

Even with capable native speakers as colleagues, the importance of the fifth question—the researcher's knowledge of the target language—cannot be overstated. In my case, considerable effort was required to gain such knowledge, even when fluency in the language was not a realistic goal. My efforts included reading books on the grammar of the language, enrollment in college classes, and trips to the target country.


Despite the effort required to engage in cross-linguistic research, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I have a much deeper understanding of language disorders in children—including language disorders in English-speaking children. I suspect that cross-linguistic researchers who work in other communication disorder areas in which language plays a central or interactive role—aphasia, phonological disorders, traumatic brain injury, stuttering—feel the same. (Cross-linguistic researchers in the area of phonological disorders, for example, have a clear sense of why /l/ might be more likely to be replaced by /n/ than by /w/ in some languages, and why "prevocalic devoicing" is more frequent than "prevocalic voicing" in other languages.)

Any successful venture should provide benefits to all parties. For example, researchers or speech-language pathologists in other countries might welcome the opportunity to work with a U.S. colleague if the collaboration might result in valuable information about typical or atypical language functioning in their native language.

Disseminating Results

It is important to establish very early in the professional relationship the goals of the collaborative work, and how authorship will be shared on any resulting publications. Often, a U.S. scholar (and the non-U.S. collaborator as well) will want to publish the results in an English-language journal.

Publications or clinical materials might also be prepared in the language that was studied. Non-English publication might have great practical and symbolic importance to the non-U.S. collaborator, and the U.S. researcher should express willingness to assist in such activities. This activity will require some effort, because the product should have original content (rather than reflect a direct translation from the work already prepared for English publication). However, it can be satisfying to be associated with published articles or clinical materials that help to advance the field in another country.

Naturally, the friendships that can develop from cross-linguistic collaborations are a bonus that may prove the greatest benefit of all. When I think about previous collaborative studies, special people and places spring to mind as readily as the findings themselves.

Laurence B Leonard, is Rachel E. Stark Distinguished Professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Purdue University. Contact him at

cite as: Leonard, L. B. (2007, November 27). International Research in Child Language Disorders. The ASHA Leader.


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