HEALTH ENCYCLOPEDIA

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Language Disorder

What Is Language Disorder?

People with language disorder (formerly known as receptive-expressive language disorder) have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding what others are saying. This is unrelated to hearing and speech problems.

The disorder is common in young children. It occurs in 10 to 15 percent of those under the age of 3 years old. By age 4, language ability is generally more stable and can be measured more accurately to determine whether or not a deficit exists.

Recognizing the Disorder

Problems in Expression

Language disorder is often first noticed in childhood. Your child may overuse "um" and "uh" because they cannot recall the right word.

Other symptoms include:

  • reduced vocabulary in comparison to other children of the same age
  • limited ability to form sentences
  • impaired ability to use words and connect sentences to explain or describe something
  • reduced ability to have a conversation
  • leaving words out
  • saying words in the wrong order
  • repeating a question while thinking of an answer
  • confusing tenses (for example, using past tense instead of present)

Some of these symptoms are part of normal language development. However, your child may have a language disorder if several of these issues are persistent and don’t improve.

Difficulty Understanding Others

An equally important aspect of this disorder is having a hard time understanding others when they speak. This may translate into difficulty following directions at home and school.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there may be a problem if your child is 18 months old and doesn’t understand a command like "get your coat.” If your child isn’t using names like “Mama” or “Dada” by 30 months, then it may be a sign of a language disorder.

Understanding Language Disorder

Oftentimes, the cause of this disorder is unknown. Genetics and nutrition may play a role, but these explanations have not yet been proven.

Normal language development involves the ability to hear, see, comprehend, and retain information. This process may be delayed in some children, who eventually catch up with peers.

A delay in language development may be related to:

  • hearing problems
  • brain injury
  • damage to the central nervous system

Sometimes, delayed language may accompany other developmental problems, such as:

  • hearing loss
  • autism
  • learning disability

Language disorder is not necessarily related to a lack of intelligence. Experts try to identify the cause when language development doesn’t happen naturally.

Addressing and Easing Symptoms

The disorder is often treated through the collective efforts of parents, teachers, speech specialists, and health professionals.

Medical Exam

The first course of action is to visit your primary care provider for a full physical. This will help rule out or diagnose other conditions, such as a hearing problem or other sensory impairment.

Language Therapy

The common treatment for this language disorder is speech and language therapy. Treatment will depend on the age of your child and the cause and extent of the condition. For example, your child may participate in one-on-one meetings with a language therapist or attend group sessions. The language therapist will repeat words and speak slowly to your child to strengthen their comprehension and expression skills.

Early intervention often plays an important role in a successful outcome.

Home Care Options

Working with your child at home can help. Here are some tips:

  • Speak clearly, slowly, and concisely when asking your child a question.
  • Wait patiently as your child forms a response.
  • Keep the atmosphere relaxed to reduce anxiety.
  • Ask your child to put your instructions in their own words after giving an explanation or command.

Frequent contact with teachers is also important. Your child may be reserved in class and may not want to participate in activities that involve talking and sharing. Ask the teacher about class activities in advance to help prepare your child for upcoming discussions.

Psychological Therapy

Having difficulty understanding and communicating with others can be frustrating and may trigger episodes of acting out. Counseling may be needed to address emotional or behavioral issues.

Consequences of the Disorder

Effective communication is an important part of forming relationships at work, school, and social settings. An unaddressed language disorder can cause long-term consequences, including depression or behavior problems in adulthood.

Preventing This Disorder

Preventing this disorder is difficult, especially because the exact cause of the disorder is largely unknown. However, it’s possible to reduce the disorder’s impact by working closely with a language therapist. Seeing a counselor can also help in dealing with the emotional and mental health challenges that the disorder may cause.


Content licensed from:

Written by: Chitra Badii
Medically reviewed on: Dec 16, 2015: Tim Legg PhD, PMHNP-BC, GNP-BC, CARN-AP, MCHES

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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