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Language disorder is a communication disorder in which a person has persistent difficulties in learning and using various forms of language (i.e., spoken, written, sign language). Individuals with language disorder have language abilities that are significantly below those expected for their age, which limits the ability to communicate or effectively participate in many social, academic, or professional environments.

Symptoms of language disorder first appear in the early developmental period when children begin to learn and use language. Language learning and use relies on both expressive and receptive skills. Expressive ability refers to the production of verbal or gestural signals, while receptive ability refers to the process of receiving and understanding language. Individuals with language disorder may have impairments in either their receptive or expressive abilities, or both. Overall, people with this condition have deficits in understanding and producing vocabulary, sentence structure, and discourse. Because people with language disorder typically have a limited understanding of vocabulary and grammar, they also have a limited capacity for engaging in conversation.


Children with language disorder will typically be delayed in learning or speaking their first words and phrases. When they do speak, their sentences are shorter and less complex than would be expected for their age. Individuals with language disorder typically speak with grammatical errors, have a small vocabulary, and may have trouble finding the right word at times. When engaging in conversation, they may not be able to provide adequate information about the key events they’re discussing or tell a coherent story. Because children with language disorder may have difficulty understanding what other people say, they may have an unusually hard time following directions.

It is common for deficits in comprehension to be underestimated, because people with language disorder may be good at finding strategies to cope with their language difficulties, such as using context to infer meaning. They may also appear to be shy or reserved, and they may prefer to communicate only with family members or other familiar people.

Language skills are highly variable in young children, and many children who are late in speaking their first words or phrases do not develop language disorder. Delayed language acquisition is not predictive of language disorder until age 4, when individual differences in language ability become more stable. Language disorder that is diagnosed at age 4 or later is likely to be stable over time and often persists into adulthood. Although language disorder is present from early childhood, it is possible that the symptoms won’t become obvious until later in life, when the demands for more complex language use increase.

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Communication disorders have a strong genetic component, and individuals with language disorder are more likely to have family members with a history of language impairment. Language disorder is also strongly associated with other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as specific learning disorder (literacy and numeracy), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and developmental coordination disorder.


The treatment for language disorder primarily consists of speech and language therapy in order to improve expressive and receptive language skills. Psychotherapy can also be a helpful tool to manage the emotional and behavioral issues that may arise in children with language disorder.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing  
Child Mind Institute
Last updated: 02/15/2018