Clinical Linguistics for students of linguistics

Author: Sara Howard


This article addresses issues in teaching and learning of Clinical Linguistics for students on degrees in general linguistics and language

Table of contents


Clinical linguistics is a relatively new discipline, emerging in large part since the late 1970s, which can be defined as “the application of the linguistic sciences to the study of language disability in all its forms” (Crystal, 2001:673). As well as being a core subject in the education of speech and language therapists, clinical linguistics is also interesting and valuable for students of the linguistic sciences generally. In the UK the key figure in the emergence of clinical linguistics as an independent discipline was David Crystal, and a number of publications by him and his colleagues still provide a valuable introduction to the area for students (Crystal, 1981, 1982, 1984, 2001; Crystal, Fletcher & Garman, 1976). Where Crystal originally saw clinical linguistics as having primarily a clinical role in supporting the work of speech and language therapists, more recent interpretations of the term have stressed the two-way direction of influence: clinical linguistic analysis can support the SLT in assessing and treating individuals with communication impairments, but of equal importance, clinical linguistic data is a valuable tool in the critical evaluation of competing linguistic theories and methodologies (Ball & Kent, 1987; Perkins & Howard, 1995a).

For students of linguistics, clinical linguistics has valuable things to say about a number of key issues: how language develops in childhood; how it is processed, stored and produced by the brain; how it may fail to develop and how it may go wrong later in life. A central issue for linguistics students is the notion of normal language and its relationship with language variation. By its consideration of atypical language data, and its perspective on the continuum of normal to atypical language behaviour, clinical linguistics provides a perspective on what is normal and how one might set about making judgements of normality and normal variation.

Clinical linguistics can be introduced into the curriculum of linguistic sciences degrees in two main ways. Firstly, it can be integrated into the modules on different levels of language (e.g. phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics, etc), which form a core part of many degrees in linguistic sciences. Just as sociolinguistic, historical, developmental and crosslinguistic material provides useful illustrations of how speech and language work, so examples from atypical language behaviour can also effectively illuminate aspects of linguistic theory. Clinical linguistic data can also be used in the critical evaluation of competing linguistic theories, adding to our understanding about which structures are fundamental to language, and providing evidence about the nature of speech and language processing. See also the discussion of clinical linguistics in the QAA Benchmarking Statement (see Internet link below).

Clinical linguistics can also be taught in a general linguistics sciences degree as a module in its own right. Books such as Perkins and Howard (1995b), Powell (1996), Ziegler and Deger (1998), Maassen and Groenen (1999) and Windsor, Kelly and Hewlett (2002) provide good source material showing how clinical linguistics can be applied to communication impairments at all levels of linguistics.

Clinical linguistics now has its own professional association, The International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics Assocation and its own dedicated journal, Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics (see Internet links below).


Ball, M.J. & R.D. Kent (1987). Editorial. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics 1, 1: 1-7

Crystal, D. (1981). Clinical Linguistics. Vienna: Springer-Verlag

Crystal, D. (1982). Profiling Linguistic Disability. London: Arnold.

Crystal, D. (1984). Linguistic Encounters with Language Handicap. Oxford: Blackwell.

Crystal, D. (2001). Clinical linguistics. In M. Aronoff & J. Rees-Miller (Eds.), The Handbook of Linguistics (pp. 673-682).Oxford: Blackwell.

Crystal, D., P. Fletcher & M. Garman (1976). The Grammatical Analysis of Language Disability. London: Arnold.

Maassen, B. & P. Groenen (1999). Pathologies of Speech and Language: Advances in Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics. London: Whurr.

Perkins, M. & S. Howard (1995a). Principles of Clinical Linguistics. In Case Studies in Clinical Linguistics (Eds, Perkins, M. & Howard, S.) London: Whurr

Perkins, M. & S. Howard (Eds) (1995b). Case Studies in Clinical Linguistics London: Whurr.

Powell, T. (Ed) (1996). Pathologies of Speech and Language. New Orleans: ICPLA

Windsor, F., M.L. Kelly & N. Hewlett (2002). Investigations in Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zielger, W. & K. Deger (Eds) (1998). Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics. London: Whurr.

Related links

QAA Benchmarking Statements

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy

The International Clinical Phonetics & Linguistics Association

Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from