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Understanding and predicting developmental language abilities and disorders in multilingual Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PREDICTABLE (Understanding and predicting developmental language abilities anddisorders in multilingual Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-03-01 to 2019-04-30

One of the hallmarks of what it means to be human is language which enables humans to communicate and hence to benefit from the knowledge of others. In modern societies, written language is essential for the preservation and accumulation of knowledge. On the individual level, competence in spoken and written language is fundamental for participating in the educational, economic, social and cultural life of society. Hence, the acquisition of spoken and written language is one of the most important developmental steps in young humans. In typical circumstances, the acquisition of these competencies constitutes no major challenge for the child – provided that the environment offers the necessary conditions, i.e. sufficient language input in critical age ranges for spoken language and sufficient education for written language.
However, even if these conditions are met, not all children acquire these capacities without difficulty. Estimates suggest that about 6 to 8% of children suffer from Specific Language Impairment (SLI), a disorder in language development with no known cause such as general cognitive delay, hearing impairment, brain damage or deprived social circumstances. Based on current birth rates in the EU27, around 1.75 Mio pre-school children in Europe suffer from this disorder and are at risk of facing serious problems on entering school. Furthermore, 3 to 10% of children suffer from Developmental Dyslexia (DD), a specific disorder in acquiring fluent reading and writing skills, again without any known causes resulting from more general cognitive, perceptual or social conditions. This disorder is persistent across the lifespan, with slow reading and spelling problems still handicapping the use of written language in adulthood3 thereby leading to an enhanced risk for marginalization and drop-out from society.
Despite a high comorbidity, SLI and DD have so far been studied mostly independently. In that perspective, the project combines previously established early indicators in both domains to create an integrated approach to language-related developmental risk.
In sum, Predictable aims at identifying the specific ways in which children with disorders do and do not deviate from typically developing children, which is fundamental for the detection
of early markers and the development of more targeted interventions. This enterprise can only be realized by a network of partners from the academic and the private sector that provides expertise in developmental psycholinguistics, neuroscience, speech science, in the technologies related to these fields and in clinical applications.
Developmental cognitive neuroscience and linguistic sciences are highly challenging research areas due to the methodological difficulties that are inherent in the work with very young children. The sophisticated experimental designs and methods which have been developed and used in Predictable have in common that they are non-invasive and allow insights into young children’s cognitive and linguistic development. These techniques can be used across different age ranges.
The research questions were addressed by behavioral measures (in particular Headturn Preference Procedure), combined with clinical tests and parental questionnaires, ERPs, EEG/MEG measurements as well as measures of eye movements (EM) using high precision eye-tracker technology. All studies collected various measures on the same infants/children, measures that rely on different methodologies.
PREDICTABLE established a common ground at various levels: behavioral (standard) assessments, NIRS data analysis in infants, EEG data analysis in infants. Also in the future, the outcomes of the project will help to develop appropriate experimental designs in young populations. The findings have been disseminated as data analysis packages and codes.

All ESR participated in various training measures (e.g. 3 Summer Schools) as well as dissemnation/outreach activities and profited from an excellent supervision, which has an obvious impact on their career: Nearly all young researchers found adequate new jobs after the end of PredictAble.
PredictAble aimed to train a new generation of young scientists at the crossroads between academic research, technological development in the private sector and clinical practice to pioneer an interdisciplinary approach to language related developmental disorders, like specific language impairment (SLI) and developmental dyslexia (DD).
For the first time, PredictAble applied a truly multidisciplinary and cross-linguistic perspective with a unique and novel combination of cutting-edge approaches and techniques for studying mono- and bilingual children. Thus, PredictAble provided young researchers with an excellent foundation for making scientific progress in this area, in collaboration with technology development and the transfer of research outcomes to applicants in the private sector and the health sector/clinical practice. Highly recognized experts in the area of language acquisition in very young mono- and bilingual children worked together on the acquisition of spoken and written language in a cross-linguistic approach. The complementarity of the different languages in PredictAble made it possible to identify language-specific and cross-linguistically valid effects. In cooperation with technological partners from the private sector, PredictAble optimized recently developed technologies in the area of developmental cognitive neuroscience to render them suitable for use with very young children and as diagnostic tools to detect early risks for language-related impairments.

The research done in PredictAble crossed a number of different linguistic domains, and, crucially, included a crosslinguistic perspective by running related experiments with children learning different languages or having different linguistic experiences and learning conditions (typically developing children, children with a familial risk for language disorders, children with a diagnosed language disorder). This approach is needed to help uncover which aspects of developmental language disorders are connected to specific properties of the grammatical and phonological system of the ambient language and which aspects of developmental language disorders are connected to universal properties of language or general information processing mechanisms. The findings obtained not only contribute to a better understanding of the causes and origins of developmental language disorders but also to our general understanding of the development of spoken and written language. The projects included standardized measures of language achievements that were correlated with the experimental outcomes to test the predictive value of the factors that are tested in the experiments. These standardized assessments had been selected to be most comparable across languages (e.g. parental questionnaires). To our knowledge, the projects in PredictAble are the first ones that follow the goal of identifying early indicators of developmental language disorders in such a comprehensive approach.