Article/Report  |   April 2008
Genetic Effects on Children’s Conversational Language Use
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Laura S. DeThorne
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Stephen A. Petrill
    The Ohio State University, Columbus
  • Sara A. Hart
    The Ohio State University, Columbus
  • Ron W. Channell
    Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
  • Rebecca J. Campbell
    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • Kirby Deater-Deckard
    Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg
  • Lee Anne Thompson
    Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
  • David J. Vandenbergh
    The Pennsylvania State University, University Park
  • Contact author: Laura S. DeThorne, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 901 South Sixth Street, Champaign, IL 61820. E-mail:
  • © 2008 American Speech-Language-Hearing AssociationAmerican Speech-Language-Hearing Association
Article Information
Special Populations / Genetic & Congenital Disorders / Normal Language Processing / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Language
Article/Report   |   April 2008
Genetic Effects on Children’s Conversational Language Use
Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, April 2008, Vol. 51, 423-435. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2008/031)
History: Received February 4, 2007 , Accepted August 12, 2007
Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, April 2008, Vol. 51, 423-435. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2008/031)
History: Received February 4, 2007; Accepted August 12, 2007
Web of Science® Times Cited: 11

Purpose: The present study examined the extent of genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in children’s conversational language use.

Method: Behavioral genetic analyses focused on conversational measures and 2 standardized tests from 380 twins (M = 7.13 years) during the 2nd year of the Western Reserve Reading Project (S. A. Petrill, K. Deater-Deckard, L. A. Thompson, L. S. DeThorne, & C. Schatschneider, 2006) Multivariate analyses using latent factors were conducted to examine the extent of genetic overlap and specificity between conversational and formalized language.

Results: Multivariate analyses revealed a heritability of .70 for the conversational language factor and .45 for the formal language factor, with a significant genetic correlation of .37 between the two factors. Specific genetic effects were also significant for the conversational factor.

Conclusions: The current study indicated that over half of the variance in children’s conversational language skills can be accounted for by genetic effects with no evidence of significant shared environmental influence. This finding casts an alternative lens on past studies that have attributed differences in children’s spontaneous language use to differences in environmental language exposure. In addition, multivariate results generally support the context-dependent construction of language knowledge, as suggested by the theory of activity and situated cognition (J. S. Brown, A. Collins, & P. Duguid, 1989; T. A. Ukrainetz, 1998), but also indicate some degree of overlap between language use in conversational and formalized assessment contexts.

The Western Reserve Reading Project is supported by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grants HD38075 and HD46167. In addition, transcription and analyses were supported by the ASHFoundation New Investigator Award, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Campus Research Board, and the Children, Youth and Families Consortium at The Pennsylvania State University. Interdisciplinary collaborations have been enhanced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Advancing Academic–Research Careers (AARC) Award. Thanks to Philip Dale, Robert Plomin, and Chris Schatschneider for providing sound advice. In addition, we sincerely appreciate the time and effort of all participating families and affiliated research staff, including numerous research assistants for their diligent and conscientious transcription: Emily Angert, Amanda Austin, Erica Boorshtein, Mary-Kelsey Coletto, Jen Curran, Christine Holloway, Erin Hunsicker, Adrienne Johnson, Huai-Rhin Kim, Jen Kreiger, JiYun Lee, Shannon Lees, Amy Michie, Lauren Mueller, Megan O’Sullivan, Patti Ruby, Ashley Sharer, Jennifer Small, Ling Sui, Carly Sullivan, Meg Thorsen, Marcia Walsh, Lauren Wendorf, and Elizabeth Whitehouse.
Order a Subscription
Pay Per View
Entire Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research content & archive
24-hour access
This Article
24-hour access