A language disorder affects the way a child comprehends or uses language
There are three different types of language disorders:
What is a language disorder?
A language disorder is a communication disorder that affects the way a child comprehends or uses language. This is different from a speech disorder, which affects the way a child produces sound.
Language disorders are often developmental disorders that start in early childhood and continue into adulthood. About 5% of young children are diagnosed with language disorders between the ages of 3 and 5, and they are twice more common in boys than in girls.
Language disorders typically affect all forms of communication affecting a child’s performance at home, in school, and in social situations. A child with language disorder will have problems in learning all languages.
What causes language disorders?
Although the exact cause of language disorders is unknown, sometimes it is linked to a health problem or disability, such as:
- Brain injury
- Brain tumor or brain illness
- Developmental disorder (for example, autism)
- Damage to the central nervous system
- Birth defects, such as Down’s syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or cerebral palsy
The risk of having a language disorder increases with:
- Family history of language disorders
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Hearing loss
- Thinking disabilities
- Poor nutrition
- Failure to thrive (inability to maintain growth)
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
What are signs and symptoms of language disorders?
Language disorders present in early childhood, but symptoms may not be obvious until later when a child begins to be exposed to more complex language. Symptoms may range from mild to severe.
Receptive language disorder
Children with a receptive language disorder may have trouble with:
- Understanding meanings of words and sentences
- Understanding what people say
- Understanding gestures
- Learning new words
- Understanding what they read
- Understanding new concepts and ideas
- Answering questions
- Following instructions given to them
- Organizing their thoughts
- Identifying objects
Expressive language disorder
Children with an expressive language disorder may:
- Have difficulty using words correctly
- Speak in short or simple sentences
- Struggle to put words in proper order
- Have difficulty in asking questions
- Have trouble using gestures
- Have limited vocabulary compared to children of the same age
- Speak less than other children
- Omit words from sentences when talking
- Use certain phrases repeatedly
- Have trouble naming objects
- Repeat or echo parts of or entire questions
- Use past, present, and future tenses incorrectly
- Leave out conjunctions, such as “and” or “but”
- Struggle to apply various rules of standard spoken communication
- Appear shy or reluctant to talk
- Have difficulty telling stories, singing songs or reciting poems
- Have difficulty finding suitable words when talking and often use sounds, such as “um,” while searching for the correct word
Childhood Diseases: Measles, Mumps, & More
What are complications of language disorders?
Children who have language disorders during preschool ages may present with the following in the future:
- Reading disorder
- Learning difficulty
- Struggle with academics and socializing with peers
- Problems functioning independently
- Behavioral problems
- Difficulties interacting with others and building relationships
- Depression, social anxiety, and other emotional problems
How are language disorders diagnosed?
Language disorder diagnosis starts with a pediatrician ruling out hearing problems or other sensory impairments that could impact language. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) then evaluates the child’s ability to comprehend and express language.
The SLP will conduct standardized tests to observe how the child:
- Follows directions
- Repeats phrases or rhymes
- Understands names of things
- Performs other language activities
In order to be diagnosed with a language disorder, a child must have an impairment in using language to communicate or carry on a conversation.
How are language disorders treated?
Language disorders can be treated in the following ways:
- Speech and language therapy: A speech-language pathologist may use different methods to help the child with language development by:
- Using toys, books, pictures, or objects
- Boosting phonological awareness
- Building vocabulary
- Using strategies to improve reading comprehension
- Using language to express complex ideas
- Asking and answering questions
- Engaging in simple activities, such as craft projects
- Improving social communication skills with back-and-forth conversation
- Counseling and cognitive behavior therapy: This helps treat related emotional or behavioral problems.
- Home care: Parents can help language development in a child by:
- Reading and narrating stories
- Speaking clearly, slowly, and briefly
- Listening and responding when the child speaks
- Keeping the atmosphere relaxed
- Making the child repeat instructions in their own words
Medically Reviewed on 6/17/2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Language and Speech Disorders in Children. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/language-disorders.html
Rosenbaum S, Simon P (eds.). Speech and Language Disorders in Children. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Apr 6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK356279/
Vining CB, Guiberson M (eds.). Enhancing Language Services to Native American Children: A Look from the Inside. Language Disorders. June 2021; 41 (2). https://journals.lww.com/topicsinlanguagedisorders/pages/default.aspx