Theories of specific language impairment (SLI) in children turn on whether this deficit stems from a grammar specific impairment or a more general speech-processing deficit. This issue parallels a more general question in cognitive neuroscience concerning the brain bases of linguistic rules. This more general debate frequently focuses on past-tense verbs, specifically, whether regular verbs (bake-baked) are encoded as rules, and whether irregular forms (take-took) are processed differently. Children with SLI have difficulties with past tenses, so SLI could represent an impairment to rules. An alternative theory explains past-tense deficits in SLI as resulting from a phonological deficit. Evidence for this theory has been obtained from connectionist models of past-tense impairments and from behavioral studies of language- and reading-impaired children. The data suggest that SLI is not an impairment to linguistic rules, that past-tense impairments can be explained as resulting from a perceptual deficit, and that a single processing mechanism is ideally suited to account for these children’s difficulties.
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