Language Disorders

Image of a mother talking to her child

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 schooling 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 below to answer your questions about language disorders, identify common signs and symptoms to look for, explain how language disorders are typically treated, and more.

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, and 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, conveying stories, or making their wants and needs known through verbal communication. This can be particularly frustrating for children - they know what they want to say, but 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 do so in a way that doesn’t make sense.
  • In some cases, children may experience a mixture of both expressive and receptive language issues. They 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,” as well as “wadio” instead of “radio.” Sarah on the other hand has trouble stringing together the right words to form coherent sentences. She wants to say “can we go to the park please?” but instead she says “I go park please”

In this example, John has a speech disorder while Sarah has a language disorder. Both of their parents may have trouble understanding them, but for completely different reasons.

How Common Are Language Disorders?

In the United States, between 6-8 million people have some form of language impairment. Approximately 3.3 percent of children between the ages of 3-17 have had a language disorder during the past 12 months.

What Does a Language Disorder Look Like?

A language disorder is often present in children from an early age. However, their 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.

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. An example may be, “come sit at the table.” Similarly, by 30 months your child should be responding to questions or directions with language or gestures (such as a nod or headshake). 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 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 may be a natural part of language development. However, if these issues persist and don’t improve overtime, 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 an effective communicator is one of life’s most valuable skills. Language plays a key role in learning to read and write, interacting with peers in a social setting, and having a successful professional career.

However, 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 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. To be proficient in language, exposure to language, and any necessary treatment should begin as early as possible.

How are Language Disorders Diagnosed?

As mentioned, early intervention is very important for children with communication disorders - typically during their toddler or preschool years. These years are an essential period of normal language development, and 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 habits and ask 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 may refer you to a specialist known as a speech-language pathologist (SLP), which are the most qualified professionals to evaluate, diagnose, and treat language disorders.

Your speech therapist will help 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 be diagnosed with a language disorder, your speech therapist will conduct an assessment to determine their 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, and develop a tailored treatment plan to help them master their language skills and communicate more effectively. They will also help set the foundation for reading and writing skills by promoting their oral language.

They 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 guardian, no one knows your child better than you: their needs, temperament, learning preferences, and challenges. By staying proactive, and ensuring you provide a nurturing environment to help your child grow, learn, and thrive, you can get them the help they need to become effective communicators.

Below we've listed some helpful tips and recommendations on how to stay involved in your child’s progress.

  • Find a Trusted Care Team: When choosing a speech-language pathologist, make sure they are both accredited and experienced in dealing with language issues. Your child’s care team may also extend beyond their speech therapist and include teachers, mentors, audiologists, behavioral therapists, and more.
  • Request School Accommodations: If your child is school age, make sure to develop a good relationship with their teacher or school administrator, and ask about any special accommodations they can offer. This can include providing simple 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 co-developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
  • Speak Clearly with Your Child: As a parent, it’s important to model clear, slow, and concise language at home. Additionally, 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.
  • At-Home Practice: Children learn and develop language by listening and speaking with others. And who spends more time with your child than you? We’ve written extensively about the importance of parental involvement in their child’s speech and language therapy. Overcoming a language disorder takes time and persistence, and research has shown that when parents are actively involved in their child’s therapy, they make better progress. Parents are essential to putting new skills taught by their speech therapist into practice.

Below are a few at-home exercises parents can do with their child during everyday activities to help improve their language skills.

How Can Expressable Help Evaluate and Treat Language Disorders

Expressable matches families with a certified speech therapist trained to effectively 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: Parents work directly with their speech therapist to learn cues and at-home strategies so they can confidently practice with their child outside the session and improve their communication.

Ages 3-6: Parents 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 are welcome to bring loved ones or family members as well.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor or Speech Therapist

  • 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 his/her language disorder is (or will be)?
  • What changes can I expect to see in my child over time?
  • How will his/her language disorder affect their schooling?
  • What changes can I expect to see in my child over time?
  • How will his/her language disorder affect their ability to communicate?
  • How much and what kinds of care will my child need?
  • How can I learn more about language disorders?

Talk with a certified therapist today.

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