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What are language disorders?

The way we understand and use language is very complex. It’s also a critical part of what makes us human! When a person has difficulty communicating their thoughts, feelings, and needs, daily life can be a struggle. Let’s take a look at what a language disorder is, what it isn’t, and how to help someone when they have one.

Defining language disorders

The definition of language disorders, according to the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), is as follows:

“A language disorder is impaired comprehension and/or use of spoken, written and/or other symbol systems. The disorder may involve (1) the form of language (phonology, morphology, syntax), (2) the content of language (semantics), and/or (3) the function of language in communication (pragmatics) in any combination.”

Let’s break that definition down into bite-size chunks so we can understand what it actually means!

  • Phonology is the sound system of a language and the rules that govern the sound combinations.

    • You may have heard of related terms such as phonological awareness, phonological processing, and phonological working memory issues.

    • Difficulties in this area of language affect the ability to manipulate sounds, blend sounds, match letters to sounds, etc.

  • Morphology is the system that governs the structure of words and the construction of word forms.

    • This system contributes to the flexibility, creativity, and complexity of oral and written language.

    • Difficulties in this area of language affect things such as verb tenses, pronouns, plurals, etc.

  • Syntax is the system governing the order and combination of words to form sentences, and the relationships among the elements within a sentence.

    • Syntactic rules tell us how we can string words together to make grammatically-correct sentences.

    • Syntax difficulties affect word order, prepositional phrases and clauses, storytelling, etc.

  • Semantics is the system that governs the meanings of words and sentences.

    • Word meanings can vary based on your age, region, dialect, culture, and more. For example, think of some slang words you may have used as a teen compared to ones used by kids today!

    • You may notice semantic issues such as word choice errors, multiple-meaning word difficulties, rigid/inflexible definitions for words, etc.

  • Pragmatics is the system that combines the above language components in functional and socially appropriate communication.

    • Pragmatics is basically the system that puts all the previous systems together. Think of this as the “social skills” language system.

    • Pragmatic language disorders are often described as difficulty understanding intonation (sarcasm, emotions), choosing appropriate responses to various social scenarios, conveying empathy, appropriate requesting/confirming/negating, appropriate negotiation skills, etc.

Recognizing language disorders

Experts estimate that up to 5 percent of children in the U.S. have some type of language disorder (though some go unidentified or diagnosed). Currently more than 1 million children are receiving special education specific to language disorders in the U.S. public school system.

It’s important to understand that children develop different skills at different rates, and they develop them at their own pace. There is a wide range of “normal” when talking about timelines of developmental milestones. That being said, there are some signs to look for that may be indicative of an underlying language disorder (from

  • Birth and older: Does not smile or interact with others

  • 4 - 7 months: Does not babble

  • 7 - 12 months: Makes only a few sounds or gestures, like pointing

  • 7 months - 2 years: Does not understand what others say

  • 12 - 18 months: Says only a few words

  • 18 months - 2 years: Words are not easily understood

  • 1.5 - 3 years: Does not put words together to make sentences

  • 2 - 3 years: Has trouble playing and talking with other children

  • 2.5 - 3 years: Has trouble with early reading and writing skills

One person with a language disorder might find it difficult to speak “on the fly” or outline what they are thinking, while another person might struggle to understand what others are saying, follow directions, or keep focused during conversations.

Difficulties and complications can arise for a person when their underlying language disorder isn’t addressed early, or when it isn’t properly diagnosed. These problems often follow them into adulthood. Problems can include social situations, difficulties with self-expression and comprehension, withdrawal and isolation, or being unjustly labeled as the “problem child” or “bully” when communication difficulties cause them to lash out at others.

Treating language disorders

Earlier is almost always better when it comes to seeking help for language concerns. Once the language disorder is properly identified, language therapy can start to build support and give the child what they need to more successfully communicate. The length of treatment usually depends on the extent of the disorder, the age of the child, and the ability to generalize skills learned in therapy to all communication situations. In addition to the personalized treatment from an SLP, there are some ways to address language disorders at home and in academic settings:

  • Help your child plan ahead

  • Ask fewer open-ended questions

  • Model proper sentence structure without correcting

  • Talk or sing to your child as much as you can

  • Resist the temptation to finish their sentences for them

  • Educate yourself (as the parent) about your child’s specific difficulties

If you have more questions about language disorders or suspect your child might have one, reach out to the Magic Speech Bus and I’d be happy to see how I can help you!

References (accessed 10/14/22)

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