Language disorder is a communication disorder in which a person has persistent difficulties in learning and using various forms of language such as spoken, written, or signed. They may struggle to understand the words they hear or see. While they do not have trouble physically making sounds, they may not be able to use language effectively to communicate.
Individuals with language disorder have language abilities significantly below those expected for their age, limiting their ability to effectively communicate or participate in many social, academic, or professional activities. However, they are not necessarily less intelligent than other children.
Language learning and use relies on both expressive and receptive abilities. 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 ability, or both, and the symptoms first appear early in childhood development.
People with language disorder have difficulty both learning and using written, spoken, or sign language. They also typically have a limited vocabulary, have trouble constructing sentences and using tenses, and may put words in the wrong order. Because they typically have a limited understanding of vocabulary and grammar, they may also have a limited capacity for engaging in conversation.
How might a parent or doctor identify language disorder in a child?
Children with language disorder are usually 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. In conversation, they may not be able to provide adequate information about the 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.
Does a child whose first words are late have language disorder?
Not necessarily. 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 to persist into adulthood.
Is it always clear that a child has language disorder?
No. Language disorder is typically present from early childhood, but because the communication demands and expectations for young children are low, the symptoms may not become obvious until later. Also, deficits in comprehension are often underestimated, because people with language disorder may be good at finding strategies to cope with their difficulties, such as using context to infer meaning.
How do symptoms of language disorder affect a child socially?
Children with language disorder may appear shy or reserved and so they may struggle to make friends, which can eventually lead to feelings of social anxiety or depression. Because of their communication deficits, they may prefer to speak only with family members or other familiar people. Such shyness is itself not indicative of language disorder, but when hesitancy to communicate is consistent, it is recommended that parents bring their child to a speech-language pathologist for a full language assessment.
As many as 1 in 20 children have a language disorder. In many cases, the cause is unknown. A brain injury, birth defects, or problems in pregnancy may lead to language disorder, but, as with other communication disorders, the condition has a strong genetic component: Individuals with language disorder are more likely to have family members with a history of language impairment.
Do people with language disorder often have other developmental disorders?
The treatment for language disorder is often effective (although less so when the condition is caused by brain injury or similar trauma). Treatment primarily consists of speech and language therapy in order to improve expressive and receptive language skills and with effective treatment, significant improvement can be achieved, although some symptoms may remain in adulthood. Receptive language deficits (difficulty understanding language) is generally more difficult to treat than expressive impairments (difficulty producing speech).
Psychotherapy can be a helpful tool to manage the emotional and behavioral issues that may arise in children with language disorder. For those whose language disorder symptoms lead to social anxiety or depression, cognitive-behavioral therapy can often be helpful.
How can parents help a child with language disorder?
Treatment for language disorder should begin as early as possible, as research suggests that children whose deficits are addressed early have better prognoses. A speech-language pathologist will typically ask parents to work with their child daily to help promote their comprehension and speech, such as reading aloud to them every day, listening closely and responding when their child talks, encouraging them to ask questions, and pointing out words all around them.