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Researchers at Bar-Ilan University have identified speech patterns which characterize stories told by monolingual and bilingual children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).

In a study, Referential Cohesion in the Narratives of Bilingual and Monolingual Children With Typically Developing Language and With Specific Language Impairment, published in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, the researchers analyzed how preschool children refer to characters when they tell stories.


Eighty-four preschool bilingual (Russian and Hebrew) and monolingual (Russian or Hebrew) children retold stories in both languages. Findings showed that both bilingual and monolingual children with DLD used pronouns (e.g. ‘he’ or ‘she’) to introduce characters both in their mother tongue and in the societal language (Hebrew). As a result, the story they tell is difficult to follow. Children with typical language development (TLD) use nouns appropriately and rarely use pronouns when first referencing (introducing) characters in their stories.

The researchers also found that children use different numbers of nouns and pronouns during storytelling in their two languages. Russian-speaking monolingual children used mostly nouns (e.g., ‘cat’, ‘dog’), while Hebrew speakers used more pronouns (‘he’ or ‘she’).

The Bar-Ilan study is the first to analyze reference to characters by bilingual children with DLD in both their languages. “The results have both educational and clinical importance since reference to characters is one of the crucial factors affecting how the narrative is understood and interpreted by a listener,” says Dr. Sveta Fichman from the Department of English Literature and Linguistics, who conducted the research as part of her doctoral dissertation together with her advisers Dr. Carmit Altman, of the University’s Churgin School of Education and Bar-Ilan Prof. Emeritus Joel Walters. When it is unclear to whom a child is referring (e.g., when a child says ‘he jumped’ and there are two or three characters in the story that the pronoun can relate to), the listener is confused.

The findings of the study will inform teachers, speech-language clinicians, and parents, showing them how to focus on the use of nouns when first introducing new characters. In addition, teachers and clinicians will become aware of language-specific characteristics of reference to characters in the mother tongue, the researchers report.

Altman and Walters recently won a four-year grant totaling more than NIS 1M from the Israel Science Foundation to study the impact of narrative intervention with English-Hebrew and Russian-Hebrew preschool children. The study will examine a wide range of narrative features in both languages of bilingual children with DLD in an effort to understand potential transfer of narrative skills across languages from both Home to School language and from School to Home language. Findings are expected to contribute guidelines for best practices to assist preschool teachers and policymakers.