From your child’s very first word, watching them grow and develop their communication skills is one of the most gratifying parts of being a parent.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for children to struggle with language. Some have difficulty understanding what others are saying. Others find it challenging to express their own thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
As a parent, this can be disheartening to watch. You may be asking yourself questions like, “Will my child grow out of it?” “Is professional help needed?” “How will this affect my child’s school experience and emotional development?”
Educating yourself on what language disorders are (and what they aren’t) will help you make the most informed decisions going forward. For that reason, we’ve put together this informational guide to answer your questions about language disorders, share the common signs and symptoms to look for, and explain how language disorders are typically treated.
What is a language disorder?
A language disorder is a type of communication disorder that makes it difficult to use, process, and comprehend language. Children with language disorders might have trouble understanding what other people are saying and expressing their own needs or feelings.
While many people associate language with verbal communication, language can actually take a variety of forms. It can affect our vocabulary, reading abilities, sentence structure, gestures, discourse, and written language.
There are two main types of language disorders. Understanding their differences is vital to getting your child the help they need.
Expressive language disorder: Children with an expressive language disorder might struggle with using new vocabulary, organizing words into a sentence, retelling stories, or making their wants and needs known verbally. This can be particularly frustrating for children--they know what they want to say, but they can’t produce legible sentences when they talk.
Receptive language disorder: Children with a receptive language disorder have difficulty understanding and extracting meaning from words they hear. They may have trouble grasping what others are saying, or interpreting written words. As a result, they may struggle to respond to questions, or they may respond in a way that doesn’t make sense.
In some cases, children may experience a mix of both expressive and receptive language issues. These children have trouble both using and understanding language.
What is the difference between speech and language disorders?
Language disorders are commonly confused with speech disorders. They are not the same. And while the differences can seem small and nuanced, it’s important to understand which your child may be experiencing.
Speech refers to how we say different sounds and words. For example, stuttering is a common speech disorder. So is having trouble pronouncing the letter “r” or the sound “sh.” Language, on the other hand, refers to how we use and understand different words to get our message across.
For example, let’s take two friends, John and Sarah. John has trouble articulating sounds. He says “thith” instead of “this,” and “wadio” instead of “radio.” Sarah, in contrast, has trouble stringing together the right words to form coherent sentences. She wants to say “Can we go to the park, please?” but instead says “I go park, please”
In this example, John has a speech disorder, and Sarah has a language disorder. Both of their families may have trouble understanding them, but for completely different reasons.
How common are language disorders?
In the United States, between 6 and 8 million people have some form of language impairment. Approximately 3.3% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have had a language disorder during the past 12 months.
What does a language disorder sound like?
A language disorder is often present in children from an early age. However, the symptoms often aren’t apparent until they’re older and begin to use more complicated language.
The signs and symptoms can vary depending on whether a child has a receptive or expressive language disorder. If you notice any of the signs below, you should speak with your child’s healthcare provider or a speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist.
Children with a receptive language disorder may have trouble:
Understanding and processing what people say
Reading and learning new vocabulary
Comprehending new concepts or ideas
Following directions and organizing their thoughts
According to American Family Physician, children should be able to follow one-step directions by the time they’re 18 months old. An example might be "Come sit at the table.” Similarly, by age 30 months, your child should be responding to questions or directions with language or gestures, such as a nod or head shake. If these activities are not taking place, it may be a sign of a language disorder.
Children with an expressive language disorder may have trouble:
Using words and sentences correctly; they may omit words from sentences, confuse word tenses, use only simple or short sentences, repeat words out of order, or use placeholders like “um” or “uh” when speaking
Telling stories or having a conversation
Asking questions or expressing their needs
Singing songs or reciting poems
Many of these symptoms can be a natural part of language development. However, if these issues don’t improve over time, it’s important to seek professional help.
What causes language disorders in children?
Language disorders can have many causes. According to Stanford Children’s Health, they are often attributed to a health problem or disability. If any of these scenarios apply to your child, they may be at increased risk of language difficulties:
Pregnancy complications, such as premature birth, low birth weight, poor nutrition, or fetal alcohol syndrome
A brain disorder such as autism
A brain injury such as a tumor
Birth defects such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or cerebral palsy
In many cases, genetics may play a role. Children with a family history of language impairment may be at increased risk.
How can language disorders affect your child's everyday life?
Being able to communicate clearly is one of life’s most valuable skills. Language plays a key role in learning to read and write, interacting with other people, and having a successful career.
Unaddressed language disorders can have severe consequences if not properly treated. Children may have trouble in school and receive poor grades. They may experience low self-esteem and social isolation, or they could have behavioral issues due to their frustrations with communicating.
As with most developmental issues, the best prevention is often early intervention. In fact, research suggests that the first 6 months of a child's life are the most critical to their language development. Any needed treatment for language problems should begin as early as possible.
How are language disorders diagnosed?
As mentioned, early intervention is important for children with communication disorders. Treatment should typically begin during their toddler or preschool years. These years are a key period of normal language development, and they're also when many children begin to form their language habits.
If you are concerned about your child’s language development, speak with your doctor. Your doctor will start by observing your child’s language and asking questions about their medical history and your family history. Most likely, they’ll also test whether your child has a hearing impairment, which is one of the most common reasons children experience language difficulties.
In many cases, your doctor will refer you to a specialist known as a speech-language pathologist, or speech therapist. They are the most qualified professionals to evaluate, diagnose, and treat language disorders.
Your speech therapist will determine whether your child may be experiencing a delay in their language development, or whether there’s a more serious problem that could potentially continue into adulthood.
To diagnose a language disorder, your speech therapist will conduct an assessment to determine your child's ability to both understand and express language. They’ll evaluate how well your child performs age-appropriate communication tasks, including their vocabulary, sentence structure, ability to listen and follow directions, how well they can hold a conversation and answer questions, and other language activities.
How are language disorders treated?
Treatment for language disorders will largely depend on the age of your child and the cause and extent of their condition. Your speech therapist will often start by identifying your child’s areas of strength and weakness. They will develop a tailored treatment plan to help your child master their language skills and communicate more effectively. Your speech therapist will also help set the foundation for reading and writing skills by promoting their oral language.
Your speech therapist may do the following activities with your child:
Help your child learn to relax and enjoy communicating through play
Use toys, books, objects, or pictures to help with language development
Have your child do educational activities, worksheets, or practices
Have your child practice asking and answering questions
How can I help my child with their language disorder?
As a parent or caregiver, no one knows your child better than you: their needs, their personality, how they learn, and what's challenging for them. By staying proactive, and providing a nurturing environment to help your child grow, learn, and thrive, you can get them the help they need to become effective communicators.
Here are some helpful tips and recommendations on how to stay involved in your child’s progress.
Find a trusted care team: When choosing a speech therapist, look for someone who is both accredited and experienced in dealing with language issues. Your child’s care team may also include teachers, mentors, audiologists, behavioral therapists, and more.
As for accommodations at school: If your child is school-age, develop a good relationship with their teacher or school administrator, and ask about any special accommodations they can offer. This can include providing simpler instructions, encouraging your child to interact with their classmates, providing one-on-one attention, asking your child to repeat back directions to ensure they're fully understanding, and developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Speak clearly with your child: As a caregiver, it’s important to model clear, slow, and simple language at home. In addition, try not to answer questions for your child if they’re taking a long time to respond. Give them time and space to gather their thoughts.
Practice language at home. Children learn and develop language by listening and speaking with others. And who spends more time with your child than you? Parental involvement is incredibly important to a child’s speech and language therapy. Overcoming a language disorder takes time and persistence, and research has shown that when caregivers are actively involved in their child’s therapy, they make better progress. Caregivers are essential to helping children practice the new skills being taught by their speech therapist.
Here are a few at-home exercises caregivers can do with their child during everyday activities to help improve their language skills. You'll find more videos like these here.
How does Expressable evaluate and treat language disorders?
Expressable matches families with a certified speech therapist trained to evaluate and treat language disorders. All therapy is delivered online via face-to-face video conferencing.
Your child’s age and development will influence how your speech therapist interacts with them through these video chat capabilities.
Ages 0-3: Caregivers work directly with their child's speech therapist to learn cues and at-home strategies. This way they can confidently practice with their child outside the sessions and help improve their child's communication.
Ages 3-6: Caregivers attend video sessions alongside their child so they both learn valuable skills from their speech therapist. Reinforcing these lessons outside the session will continue to promote at-home skill building.
Ages 7 and up: Most children attend video sessions independently, but parents are kept in the loop with updates and tips during each session.
Adults: Adults attend sessions by themselves, but they are welcome to bring loved ones or family members as well.
Questions to ask your doctor or speech therapist about language disorders
Why do you think my child does (or doesn't) have a language disorder?
What are some of my child’s most prominent symptoms?
How can I tell how severe their language disorder is (or will be)?
How will their language disorder affect their schooling?
How will their language disorder affect their ability to communicate?
How much and what kinds of care will my child need?
What changes can I expect to see in my child over time?
How can I learn more about language disorders?