Evidence of compensatory processing in adults with developmental language impairment: Testing the predictions of the procedural deficit hypothesis

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Background: The Procedural Deficit Hypothesis (PDH) proposes that individuals with primary developmental language impairment (DLI) have a deficient procedural memory, compromising their syntactic abilities. Individuals with DLI may compensate for procedural memory deficits by engaging declarative memory for syntactic tasks. Arguments are part of the lexicon whereas adjuncts rely on syntactic processing. As a result, individuals with DLI may have unusual difficulty processing adjuncts. Alternatively, processing for adjuncts may be typical for individuals with DLI but show frequency effects, indicating compensatory use of declarative memory. Aims: Our goal was to test the predictions of the PDH by comparing argument and adjunct processing times for adults with and without DLI, and to seek evidence of compensatory use of declarative memory for adjunct processing. We further evaluated group performance on measures of visual procedural and declarative memory. Methods and procedures: Forty-four adults, 21 with DLI, completed a self-paced listening task, a procedural memory task, and a declarative memory task. The self-paced listening task tracked the word-by-word processing time for sentences that included prepositional phrases acting as arguments or adjuncts. We used regression analysis to determine effects of group membership and argument or adjunct status on processing times. Correlation analyses evaluated relationships between argument and adjunct frequency on processing times by group. Results and outcomes: We found no effect of group membership on the processing time for arguments and adjuncts in the self-paced listening task. Argument phrases were processed more easily by both groups. There were frequency effects for adjunct processing for the group with DLI, but not the group with typical language. We did not find the expected frequency effects for argument processing. The group with DLI also performed more poorly in both the procedural and declarative memory tasks. Secondary analyses found that non-verbal intelligence was related to outcomes on the declarative memory but not the procedural memory task. Conclusions and implications: We found mixed evidence on the predictions of the PDH. Adults with DLI may compensate for procedural memory deficits but it is unclear whether this depends on declarative memory or language processing experience. Compensatory processing is an important element of the language profile for adults with DLI. Learning Outcomes: The readers will be able to describe how processing arguments and adjuncts in sentences may depend on different memory systems, and how adults with developmental language impairment may compensate for syntactic processing deficits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)84-102
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Communication Disorders
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • LPN and LVN
  • Speech and Hearing


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