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Language Disorders in Children

Most infants or toddler can understand what you're saying well before they can clearly talk. As they mature and their communication skills develop, most children learn how to put their feelings into words. But a child with a language disorder may have trouble understanding words that they hear and read. This is called receptive language disorder. They may have trouble speaking with others and expressing thoughts and feelings. This is called expressive language disorder. A child will often have both disorders at the same time.

A language disorder can be frustrating, not only for parents and teachers, but also for the child. Without diagnosis and treatment, children with a receptive-expressive disorder may experience poor performance in school. They may also misbehave because of their frustration over not being able to communicate. But language disorders are a common problem in children, and can be treated.

What causes language disorders?

Language disorders can have many possible causes. Although your child's language disorder may be the primary concern, it is often secondary to a medical condition or disability. Such medical conditions or disabilities may include a brain disorder like autism, an injury, or a tumor. Others may include birth defects such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or cerebral palsy. Problems in pregnancy or birth, such as poor nutrition, fetal alcohol syndrome, early birth, or low birth weight may lead to language disorders. Sometimes language disorders have a family history. In many cases, the cause is not known.

It's important to know that learning more than one language does not cause language disorders in children. But a child with language disorder will have the same problems in all languages.

What is receptive language disorder?

A child with receptive language disorder has trouble understanding language. They have trouble grasping the meaning of words they hear and see. This includes people talking to them and words they read in books or on signs. It can cause problems with learning and needs to be treated as early as possible.

A child with receptive language disorder may have difficulty:

  • Understanding what people say

  • Understanding gestures

  • Understanding concepts and ideas

  • Understanding what he or she reads

  • Learning new words

  • Answering questions

  • Following directions  

  • Identifying objects

What is expressive language disorder?

A child with expressive language disorder has trouble using language. The child may be able to understand what other people say, but he or she has difficulty when trying to talk, and is often unable to express what he or she is feeling and thinking. And it's not just about difficulty speaking words. The disorder can affect both written and spoken language. And children who use sign language can still have trouble expressing themselves.

A child with expressive language disorder may have difficulty:

  • Using words correctly

  • Expressing thoughts and ideas

  • Telling stories

  • Using gestures

  • Asking questions

  • Singing songs or reciting poems

  • Naming objects

Diagnosing and treating language disorders

Your child's health care provider will ask about your child's language use, and look at his or her medical history. Your child may have a physical exam and hearing tests. He or she may see a psychologist. Your health care provider will likely refer your child to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). This is a specialist who can help diagnose and treat your child.

An SLP will evaluate your child during play. This may be done in a group setting with other children. Or it may be done one-on-one with your child. The SLP will look at how your child speaks, listens, follows directions, understands the names of things, repeats phrases or rhymes, and performs in other language activities.

To treat your child, the speech-language pathologist will help him or her to learn to relax and enjoy communicating through play. The SLP will use various age-appropriate methods to help your child with language and communication. He or she will talk with your child and may use toys, books, objects, or pictures to help with language development. Your child may do activities, such as craft projects. He or she may practice asking and answering questions. The SLP will explain more about the techniques that are best for your child's condition.

How you can help your child

If you think your child might have a language disorder, talk with his or her health care provider right away. Research has shown that the children who begin therapy early have the best outcome. Make sure that the SLP that you choose is certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

The SLP will guide your child's treatment, but it's important to know that parents play a critical role. You will likely need to work with your child in order to help him or her with language use and understanding. The SLP will also talk with caregivers and teachers to help them work with your child.

Ask the SLP what you should be doing at home to help the process. The SLP may advise simple activities such as reading and talking to your child to help him or her learn words, listening and responding when your child talks, encouraging your child to ask and answer questions, and pointing out words. 


Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 04/28/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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