Language Disorder Basics

Children with language disorder struggle with both understanding and speaking language. It is distinct from speech sound disorder, which consists of problems producing sound. In this guide you'll learn how language disorder appears in children, how it is diagnosed and how it's treated.

Language Disorder: What Is It?

Language disorder is a communication disorder characterized by persistent difficulties in the acquisition and use of language. These difficulties can include problems processing a range of different kinds of linguistic information, including vocabulary, sentence structure, and discourse. Language disorder can affect all kinds of linguistic communication: spoken, written, and gesture, and it can affect both a child’s ability to comprehend language and produce it. Children with this disorder do not have problems producing speech sounds. Language disorder is distinct from speech disorder, which involves difficulties in producing speech sounds, but not necessarily difficulties in producing language. Language disorder can affect a child’s ability to function at home, at school and in social situations.

Language Disorder: What to Look For

Language disorder is present from early childhood, though symptoms may not be evident until later in life when the demands for more complex language increase. If a child has difficulty comprehending language, she may have trouble understanding or processing what other people say. As a result, she may find it unusually hard to follow directions and organize her thoughts. Her sentences may be unusually short or simple, or the order of her words might seem odd or incorrect. A child with language disorder may omit words from sentences, or rely on placeholder sounds, such as “um,” while searching for the “correct” word. Other signs of the expressive side of language disorder include repeating, or “echoing” parts of questions, or questions in their entirety, and the incorrect use of tenses. A child with language disorder may appear shy or reluctant to talk, especially to someone who is not a family member or otherwise familiar to them.

Language Disorder: Risk Factors

Language disorders run in families, so children who have family members with a history of language impairment are more at risk.

Language Disorder: Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with language disorder, a child must have deficits in age-appropriate communication, including reduced vocabulary, limited sentence structure, and impairment in using language to communicate information or carry on a conversation. Speech and language pathologists can administer standardized tests to gauge a child’s ability to both comprehend and express language. The doctor should also rule out other factors, such as deafness, which is one of the most common causes of difficulties with communication and language.

Language Disorder: Treatment

If a child is diagnosed with language disorder, the best treatment for him or her will be speech and language therapy. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy in particular, may also be helpful in treating the emotional and behavioral problems that often accompany language disorder.

Language Disorder: Risk For Other Disorders

Because language disorder can affect a child’s ability to interact with other children and build relationships, the disorder may be complicated by feelings of depression and social anxiety.