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Language Disorders in Children

What are language disorders in children?

Most infants or toddlers can understand what you’re saying well before they can clearly talk. As they get older and their communication skills develop, most children learn how to put their thoughts and feelings into words.

But some children have language disorders. They may have:

  • Receptive language disorder. A child has trouble understanding words that they hear and read.

  • Expressive language disorder. A child may be able to understand what other people say, but they have trouble speaking with others and expressing their thoughts and feelings.

A child will often have both disorders at the same time. Such disorders are often diagnosed in children between the ages of 3 and 5.

What causes language disorders in a child?

Language disorders can have many possible causes. A child’s language disorder is often linked to a health problem or disability, such as:

  • A brain disorder like autism

  • A brain injury or a brain tumor

  • 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 (premature) birth, or low birth weight

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 doesn't cause language disorders. Nor is it harmful to children with language disorders. A child with a language disorder will have the same problems in all languages.

Which children are at risk for language disorders?

The cause often is not known, but children at risk for a language disorder include those with:

  • A family history of language disorders

  • Premature birth

  • Low birth weight

  • Hearing loss

  • Autism

  • Thinking disabilities

  • Genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

  • Stroke

  • Brain injury

  • Tumors

  • Cerebral palsy

  • Poor nutrition

  • Failure to thrive

What are the symptoms of language disorders in a child?

Children with receptive language disorder have 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. It needs to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

A child with a receptive language disorder may have trouble:

  • Understanding what people say

  • Understanding gestures

  • Understanding concepts and ideas

  • Understanding what they read

  • Learning new words

  • Answering questions

  • Following directions

  • Identifying objects

A child with expressive language disorder has trouble using language. The child may be able to understand what other people say, but they have trouble when trying to talk and often can’t express what they are feeling and thinking. 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 trouble:

  • Using words correctly

  • Expressing thoughts and ideas

  • Telling stories

  • Using gestures

  • Asking questions

  • Singing songs or reciting poems

  • Naming objects

How are language disorders diagnosed in a child?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s language use. The provider will also review your child’s health history and do a physical exam and hearing tests. Your child’s healthcare provider will likely refer your child to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). This specialist 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

  • Does in other language activities

How are language disorders treated in a child?

To treat your child, the SLP will help your child learn to relax and enjoy communicating through play. The SLP will use different age-appropriate methods to help your child with language and communication. The SLP will talk with your child and may:

  • Use toys, books, objects, or pictures to help with language development

  • Have your child do activities, such as craft projects

  • Have your child practice asking and answering questions

The SLP will explain more about the methods that are best for your child’s condition.

How can I help my child live with a language disorder?

A language disorder can be frustrating for parents and teachers, and also for the child. Without diagnosis and treatment, children with such a disorder may not do well 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 they can be treated.

If you think your child might have a language disorder, talk with your child’s healthcare provider right away. Research has shown that children who start therapy early have the best outcome. Make sure that the SLP 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 to help them 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 them learn words

  • Listening and responding when your child talks

  • Encouraging your child to ask and answer questions

  • Pointing out words on signs

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call your child’s healthcare provider if your child has:

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse

  • New symptoms

Key points about language disorders in children

  • Children who have a language disorder have trouble understanding language and communicating.

  • There are two kinds of language disorders: receptive and expressive. Children often have both at the same time.

  • A child with a receptive language disorder has trouble understanding words that they hear and read.

  • A child with an expressive language disorder has trouble speaking with others and expressing thoughts and feelings.

  • Language disorders can have many possible causes, such as a brain injury or birth defect.

  • A speech-language pathologist can help diagnose and treat a language disorder.

  • Parents can help their child with language use and understanding through simple activities.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are and when they should be reported.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s healthcare provider after office hours, and on weekends and holidays. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rajadurai Samnishanth
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.