Professor Heather van der Lely – 38th BUCLD 2013

Date: 14th July 2014

Posted on: 14-07-2014

Professor Heather van der Lely – an Affiliated Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and a leading light in the world of SLI/LLI – was planning to speak at the 38th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Unfortunetely she was unable to attend the due to health reasons. In her absence her address was read out by Professor Steven Pinker to a standing ovation Her statement below includes a short description of her planned speech on Specific Language Impairment, as well as news of her foundation of a charity for the funding of research on language impairment.


To the committee and participants of the 38th BUCLD 2013

I was delighted, and deeply honoured, to be invited to give the 38th BUCLD plenary talk.

It satisfied a long-held dream, dating back to 1992, when as a young postdoc I gave my first talk at BU. Gary Marcus, then a graduate student, was there as well, and we confided in each other our secret ambition: to one day be a keynote or plenary speaker. Thank you so much for conferring this honour on me, and realising that dream. I am so very sorry that, in the end, I could not give the talk. I am having treatment for cancer; I had hoped to come regardless, but a last-minute re-occurrence has forced me to cancel. I cannot express how disappointed I am.

I would like to share with you those first impressions, the taste of my first BU conference. It was intoxicating: full of curious flavours, stimulating the mind and nourishing the body. But not without some sharpness and bite: the conference’s enthusiastic criticism and comment are infamous. Throughout the years these comments have helped me realise how little we know, and have spurred me to refine my hypotheses and advance my knowledge.

My original talk was on Forward and Reverse Linking in SLI, and was highly related to the Lunchtime symposium this year. Two people’s comments I have never forgotten. First, aiming straight for the jugular, was a question (and answer) from Lila Gleitman: “What can SLI tell us about theories of language acquisition? Nothing!” Fortunately, over the years I think I have persuaded Lila that it can contribute quite a lot!. I am so grateful to Lila for her comment, which made me make my case in a more direct and, I hope, convincing way. She has always given the most wonderful support, adopting me from across the pond, and has offered many similarly pertinent—and direct—comments throughout the years I have presented at BU.

The second was from Steve Pinker, who came up immediately after my talk. He gave me wonderful encouragement, then hard criticism on every weak point in the entire presentation. His comments made the published version far better than it would have been otherwise. I could not wish for more from a colleague than the ongoing comments, criticism, advice and support that I have received from Steve for more than 20 years. It epitomises the environment and colleagues at BUCLD. Thank you Lila, Steve, and all of you; you are simply wonderful.

Finally, a quick comment on what was going to be my plenary talk. It was to be a new perspective on Specific Language Impairment, taking the last 20-plus years into consideration, but laying out a road map for the next 20 years that I hoped would spur some of you to think about working in this field. The study of SLI has entered a new era with the advent of genetic research, and our increased understanding of the neurobiology of language. Though I could not get your feedback on the ideas here, which I dearly would have loved, I am writing them up as a paper, and hope that some of you will comment on it.

To facilitate future work in what I see as a new and exciting era of research, and to turn the bad news of my illness into something good, I am setting up a charity for Developmental Language Impairment. It will have two aims.

The first is to promote and facilitate the early identification of children with grammatical impairment, not just in SLI but in other disorders in which it may occur such as Autism, ASD, Dyslexia, ADHD, and Down syndrome. My Grammar and Phonology Screening (GAPS) Test is a 10 minute, accurate method to do this for clinical and research purposes. All money from sales of the test will go to the charity.

The charity’s second aim is to fund basic research into developmental grammatical impairment from childhood to adulthood—with the ultimate aim of linking genes to brain activity and behavioural profiles, and thereby to inform us about the neurobiology of language and language acquisition. After my death, when the charity has more resources, it will fund post-docs that are working on these problems in new and exciting ways. I hope it will be a resource for years to come for young scientists who will launch their careers at the Boston University Conference on Language Development, as I did more than two decades ago.

Once again, I wish to express my sorrow at not being with you at this 38th BU Conference. I am missing your pertinent comments, your collegiate spirit, and the wonderful friendships I have developed with so many of you from around the world. Thank you so much for so wonderfully supporting my work throughout my career. You are second to none. All of you. Thank you all.


Professor Heather van der Lely for the 38th BUCLD 2013




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