What Are Language Disorders?

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Children come to the world almost pre-programmed to learn the language of their environment. But while it appears automatic for a child to learn to read, speak, and understand communication around them—the pace at which these skills are learned vary among children. In some cases, children may not meet certain developmental milestones.

A language disorder occurs when a child is unable to compose their thoughts, ideas, and messages using language. This is known as an expressive language disorder. When a child faces difficulty in understanding what is communicated via language, this is called a receptive language disorder.

Sometimes, a child may live with a mix of expressive and receptive language disorders. A lack of understanding or poor expression of language does not always indicate a language disorder, however. This could simply be the result of a speech delay.

Read on to learn about the types, characteristics, causes, and trusted treatment methods to manage language disorders in children.

Types of Language Disorders in Children 

With language, there are specific achievements expected when children mark a certain age. At 15 months, it is likely that a child can recognize between five to ten people when they are named by parents or caregivers. At 18 months, it is expected that a child can respond to simple directives like ‘let’s go outside’ without challenges. This is an already receptive child.

If at 18 months, a child is unable to pronounce ‘mama’ and ‘dada’, or if at 24 months, this child does not have at least 25 words in their vocabulary—this could signal an expressive language disorder.

Receptive Language Disorder

When a child struggles to understand the messages communicated to, or around them, this can be explained as a receptive disorder. Children with receptive challenges will usually display these difficulties before the age of four. 

Receptive difficulties may be observed where a child does not properly understand oral communication directed at, or around them.

In such cases, the child struggles to understand the spoken conversations or instructions directed around them. Likewise, written words may be difficult to process. Simple gestures to come, go, or sit still may also prove challenging to comprehend.

Expressive Language Disorders

Expressive language disorders occur when a child is unable to use language to communicate their thoughts or feelings.

In this sense, oral communication is just one of the affected areas. A child may also consider written communications difficult to express.

Children with expressive disorders will find it difficult to name objects, tell stories, or make gestures to communicate a point. This disorder can cause challenges with asking or answering questions, and may lead to improper grammar usage when communicating.

Symptoms of Language Disorders

Language disorders are a common observation in children. Up to 1 out of 20 children exhibit at least one symptom of a language disorder as they grow. The symptoms of receptive disorders include:

  • Difficulty understanding words that are spoken
  • Challenges with following spoken directions
  • Experiencing strain with organizing thoughts

Expressive language disorders are identified through the following traits in children:

  • Struggling to piece words into a sentence
  • Adopting simple and short words when speaking 
  • Arranging spoken words in a skewed manner
  • Difficulty finding correct words when speaking
  • Resorting to placeholders like ‘er’ when speaking
  • Skipping over important words when communicating
  • Using tenses improperly 
  • Repeating phrases or questions when answering

Causes of Language Disorders

With a language disorder, the child does not develop the normal skills necessary for speech and language. The factors responsible for language disorders are unknown, this explains why they are often termed developmental disorders. 

Disabilities or Brain Injury

Despite the uncertainty around the causes of these disorders, certain factors have strong links to these conditions. In particular, other developmental disorders like autism and hearing loss commonly co-occur with language disorders. Likewise, a child with learning disabilities may also live with language disorders.

Aphasia is another condition linked with language disorders. This condition develops from damage to the portion of the brain responsible for language. Aphasia may be caused by a stroke, blows to the head, and brain infections. The injury may increase the chances of developing a language disorder. 

Diagnosis of Language Disorders

To determine if a child has a language disorder, the first step is to receive an expert’s assessment of their condition.

A speech-language pathologist or a neuropsychologist may administer standardized tests. These are to review the child’s levels of language reception and expression.

The Link Between Deafness and Language Problems

In making their assessment, the health expert will conduct a hearing test to discover if the child suffers from hearing loss. This is because deafness is one of the most common causes of language problems. 

Treatment of Language Disorders

Language disorders can have far-reaching effects on the life of a child. These disorders can lead to poor social interactions, or a dependence on others as an adult. Challenges with reception and expression can also lead to reading challenges, or problems with learning.

To manage this condition, parents/guardians should exercise patience and care when dealing with children managing language disorders. While it can be challenging, children already experience frustration when dealing with others and expressing themselves. Caregivers can provide a place of comfort for children who have learning challenges.

For expert guidance, a speech-language pathologist can work with children and their guardians to improve communication and expression.

Because language disorders can be emotionally taxing, parents and children with these disorders can try therapy. This will help in navigating the emotional and behavioral issues caused by language impairments.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. NCBI. Speech and Language Disorders in Children: Implications for the Social Security Administration's Supplemental Security Income Program.

  2. MedlinePlus. Language Disorders in Children.

  3. Ritvo A, Volkmar F, Lionello-Denolf K et al. Receptive Language Disorders. Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2013:2521-2526. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1698-3_1695

  4. Reindal L, Nærland T, Weidle B, Lydersen S, Andreassen O, Sund A. Structural and Pragmatic Language Impairments in Children Evaluated for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)J Autism Dev Disord. 2021. doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04853-1

  5. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Aphasia.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Language and Speech Disorders in Children.

By Elizabeth Plumptre
Elizabeth is a freelance health and wellness writer. She helps brands craft factual, yet relatable content that resonates with diverse audiences.