Linguistic dissociations in Williams syndrome: evaluating receptive syntax in on-line and off-line tasks

Neuropsychologia. 1998 Apr;36(4):343-51. doi: 10.1016/s0028-3932(97)00133-4.


Williams syndrome (WS) is a neurodevelopmental disorder of genetic origin which results in relatively spared language in the face of serious non-verbal deficits. There is controversy, however, about how intact WS language abilities are. The discussion has focused on impairments of lexico-semantics and of morphological feature analysis, with the presumption that WS syntax is intact. We challenged this view and assessed WS receptive syntax by using two tasks testing various syntactic structures: an on-line word monitoring task and an off-line picture-pointing task. WS performance on the off-line task was generally poor. By contrast, their performance on the on-line task was far better and allowed us to ascertain precisely which aspects of WS receptive syntax are preserved and which are impaired. WS participants were sensitive to the violation of auxiliary markers and phrase structure rules but, unlike both the normal young and elderly controls, they did not show sensitivity to violations of subcategory constraints. The present study suggests that there exist dissociations within WS language which are not restricted to lexico-semantics or to morphological feature analysis, but which also invade their processing of certain syntactic structures. We conclude by arguing that WS syntax is not intact and that their language might turn out to be more like second language learning than normal acquisition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Disorders / classification*
  • Language Disorders / physiopathology
  • Language Tests*
  • Linguistics*
  • Male
  • Reaction Time
  • Speech Perception / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Williams Syndrome / physiopathology*