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Semantic sensitivity in typical and late talkers (Curtis et al., 2023)

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posted on 2023-06-20, 16:19 authored by Philip R. Curtis, Ryne Estabrook, Megan Y. Roberts, Adriana Weisleder

Purpose: Late talkers (LTs) are a group of children who exhibit delays in language development without a known cause. Although a hallmark of LTs is a reduced expressive vocabulary, little is known about LTs’ processing of semantic relations among words in their emerging vocabularies. This study uses an eye-tracking task to compare 2-year-old LTs’ and typical talkers’ (TTs’) sensitivity to semantic relationships among early acquired words.

Method: U.S. monolingual English-speaking LTs (n = 21) and TTs (n = 24) completed a looking-while-listening task in which they viewed two images on a screen (e.g., a shirt and a pizza), while they heard words that referred to one of the images (e.g., Look! Shirt!; target-present condition) or a semantically related item (e.g., Look! Hat!; target-absent condition). Children’s eye movements (i.e., looks to the target) were monitored to assess their sensitivity to these semantic relationships.

Results: Both LTs and TTs looked longer at the semantically related image than the unrelated image on target-absent trials, demonstrating sensitivity to the taxonomic relationships used in the experiment. There was no significant group difference between LTs and TTs. Both groups also looked more to the target in the target-present condition than in the target-absent condition.

Conclusions: These results reveal that, despite possessing smaller expressive vocabularies, LTs have encoded semantic relationships in their receptive vocabularies and activate these during real-time language comprehension. This study furthers our understanding of LTs’ emerging linguistic systems and language processing skills.

Supplemental Material S1. Semantic similarity ratings within stimuli quartets.

Supplemental Material S2. Supplementary analyses.

Curtis, P. R., Estabrook, R., Roberts, M. Y., & Weisleder, A. (2023). Sensitivity to semantic relationships in U.S. monolingual English-speaking typical talkers and late talkers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 66(7), 2404–2420.


Support for this study was provided by a National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) fellowship (F31DC017631), a Northwestern Research Grant, and a dissertation scholarship from the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders awarded to P.C., as well as an NIDCD grant awarded to A.W. (R21DC018357).