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What is language disorder?

Language disorder is a communication disorder that can affect kids. Children with language disorder have trouble understanding and speaking language. They may struggle with written language, spoken language or both. Kids with language disorder often use short or simple sentences, mix up the order of words, or say “um” a lot. These challenges can cause problems at home, at school and with other children.  

Language disorder is different from speech sound disorder. In speech sound disorder, the child has problems making sounds. In language disorder, the child can make sounds but has trouble using them to communicate. 

What are the symptoms of language disorder?

Signs that a child might have language disorder include: 

  • Trouble learning and using spoken and written language 
  • Struggling to learn and use gestures 
  • Difficulty with vocabulary, sentence structure or having a conversation 
  • Having a hard time following directions or organizing thoughts 
  • Using short, simple sentences 
  • Putting words in the wrong order 
  • Using the wrong tense (like saying “I go to school” when they mean “I went to school”) 
  • Leaving words out of sentences  
  • Saying things like “um” a lot while trying to remember the right word 
  • Repeating parts of questions or entire questions before answering them 
  • Avoiding talking to people they don’t know well 
  • Not knowing a lot of words 

How is language disorder diagnosed?

To diagnose language disorder, speech and language therapists will give the child a few tests. These tests will show how well the child can understand and speak language. A child is diagnosed if they cannot communicate as well as other children their age and they struggle with: 

  • Knowing a lot of words 
  • Speaking or writing long sentences 
  • Sharing information  
  • Having a conversation  

A doctor should also test for other issues that could affect their language skills, including deafness. 

What are the risk factors for language disorder?

Language disorder often runs in families. A child is more likely to have language disorder if they have a parent or sibling who also has it. 

How is language disorder treated?

Language disorder is best treated with speech and language therapy, where a specialist can help the child model correct vocabulary and grammar, and build language skills through repetition.

Language disorder can also lead to other challenges, such as depression or social anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help children with language disorder who experience emotional or behavioral problems.  

Risk for other disorders

Children with language disorder may have a hard time making friends. This can cause them to feel depressed or have social anxiety. 

How can teachers support students with language disorder?

  • Let the child know in advance before calling on them
  • Let the child know it’s okay to ask you to repeat or rephrase what you say
  • Encourage them to take notes
  • Take time to break down directions for assignments with the student one-on-one
  • During a lesson, pause for a few minutes to allow them to process the information before moving on to the next topic
  • Choose reading material that uses simple sentence structures and language

How can parents support their kids?

  • Simplify your language when speaking
  • Be direct in your language
  • Have your child repeat back what you said to make sure they understand
  • Place them in a classroom that has two teachers or includes a special education teacher
  • Make sure your child’s teachers know about their disability and how to support them
  • Take your child to a speech pathologist
This guide was last reviewed or updated on February 12, 2024.