The etiology and mechanisms of specific language impairment (SLI) in children are unknown. Differences in basic auditory processing abilities have been suggested to underlie their language deficits. Studies suggest that the neuropathology, such as atypical patterns of cerebral lateralization and cortical cellular anomalies, implicated in such impairments likely occur early in life. Such anomalies may play a part in the rapid processing deficits seen in this disorder. However, prospective, longitudinal studies in infant populations that are critical to examining these hypotheses have not been done. In the study described, performance on brief, rapidly-presented, successive auditory processing and perceptual-cognitive tasks were assessed in two groups of infants: normal control infants with no family history of language disorders and infants from families with a positive family history for language impairment. Initial assessments were obtained when infants were 6-9 months of age (M=7.5 months) and the sample was then followed through age 36 months. At the first visit, infants' processing of rapid auditory cues as well as global processing speed and memory were assessed. Significant differences in mean thresholds were seen in infants born into families with a history of SLI as compared with controls. Examination of relations between infant processing abilities and emerging language through 24 months-of-age revealed that threshold for rapid auditory processing at 7.5 months was the single best predictor of language outcome. At age 3, rapid auditory processing threshold and being male, together predicted 39-41% of the variance in language outcome. Thus, early deficits in rapid auditory processing abilities both precede and predict subsequent language delays. These findings support an essential role for basic nonlinguistic, central auditory processes, particularly rapid spectrotemporal processing, in early language development. Further, these findings provide a temporal diagnostic window during which future language impairments may be addressed.