Investigating the neural bases of developmental language disorders

Project funding

Supported by the Yidan Prize project funds

Education theme

Foundational learning

Learning/teaching methods and environments




About the idea

Impact and results

More to explore

Knowing the roots of language learning helps us spot developmental language disorders early and act to help children access education.

How do we first learn language? Usha Goswami and her team are showing that the brain’s early response to rhythm is at the root of picking up language. And that can help us open a world of possibilities for young people with developmental language disorders.

Professor Usha Goswami

Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience, University of Cambridge


Developmental language disorders (DLD) affect over 15 million children worldwide

In DLD, a child’s language fails to develop along normal lines for no obvious reason. They struggle with understanding and using language. Over time, those differences in speech can translate into a severe impact on their lives. Children with DLD who are plunged into schooling before their linguistic skills are ready for them can end up falling behind and being excluded from education—with knock-on effects on future employment and mental health.


Rates of DLD are like those of dyslexia, at around 7%. Although this project focuses on English-speaking children, DLD are found all over the world, and across languages. That suggests the root causes of DLD are separate from any specific language.



Many children with DLD fly under the radar early on—when intervention matters most

When a child also has a high IQ, teachers might not notice that they’re struggling with language tasks—or think it’s a lack of focus or something they can control. Early diagnosis and awareness can help teachers and schools support children and change a child’s view of themselves.


On top of that, it’s not always easy to observe what’s happening. Some children don’t speak a word until they’re two years old. Half of them won’t have any language processing issues at all—so we need a robust, scientific way to identify and support the other half.

About the idea

Uncovering the evidence for rhythm at the root of language

A sing-song nursery rhyme. Clapping along while we sing. Bouncing a baby on our knee to a song. These are the rhythms at the heart of learning language, according to the work of Professor Usha Goswami and her colleagues, that can unlock support for children who can’t hear the rhythms as well—and may experience educational setbacks and exclusion as a result.


For years, the prevailing idea was that we pick up language through phoneme patterns: the smallest units of sound in words. But people who were never taught to read don’t hear in phonemes—and reading is much newer to humans than speaking is. Usha’s research is finding that we start with rhythm, then syllable patterns, then rhyming patterns. Only if we’re taught to read do we then start matching phonemes to those syllables.


It's important to know because human speech is the single most complex sound our brains have to analyse—but language is absolutely fundamental to how we communicate, learn, and thrive. Usha and her team are now focusing on children with developmental language disorder (DLD), to understand how their language learning might differ from both dyslexic and typically developing children.


The team are using neuroimaging to deepen our understanding of rhythm processing

By scanning children’s brains while they’re listening to speech or rhythmic stimuli, the team are working on identifying where problems with rhythm develop. That could, for the first time, give us a clear picture of the neural origins of DLD.


In partnership with local schools, they’re working with children aged 8-10 with DLD, and a same-sized control group of younger, typically developing children with similar language levels. They’ll visit the lab for brain imaging, which will take place while they’re engaged in a listening task. That might be listening to a story (which mimics natural speech patterns) or rhythmically repeated syllables.


The outcomes could have benefits for parents, educators, therapists, and health visitors

For parents, especially mothers and primary caregivers, the team is sharing online and social media content around speaking to babies in a way that supports language learning. Similarly for early years teachers, they’re publishing online content and magazine articles that describe optimal ways of supporting early language skills.


For speech and language therapists, the team aims to write research papers showing how the data could support developing new clinical therapies based on rhythm. They’re also aiming to create new diagnostic methods that can be part of health visitor training—and potentially a simple diagnostic tool for home visits or doctors’ appointments.

Our 2019 laureate Professor Usha Goswami is using her project funds to support this project from January 2020 to December 2025 (extended due to disruptions caused by Covid-19).

Impact and results

One of the advantages of our flexible approach to funding is that our laureates have scope to extend or adapt their plans. With school lockdowns during Covid-19, it became much more difficult to recruit families for studies—and some tasks that needed a facilitator in the room became impossible. We extended the project beyond the original three years, but Usha’s team also adapted some of the research tasks so they could be carried out over video calls. That’s given them the basis for a bank of resources for therapists and teachers that they’re developing to publish in future.

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