Language disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at July 25, 2016
StartDiseasesLanguage disorder

Language disorders can have a major impact on the ability of others to understand what a speaker is saying. They can also impact an individual's ability to use speech in order to express feelings and thoughts.


Definition & Facts

Language disorders can be developmental or they can be acquired. Three types of language disorders include receptive, expressive, and mixed. Receptive language disorder has an impact on a person's ability to understand the speech of others.

Difficulty expressing ideas, thoughts, and feelings is symptomatic of an expressive language disorder. Individuals with expressive language difficulties have trouble getting their point across. Mixed receptive-expressive language disorders involve difficulty in both speech comprehension and speech expression.

Symptoms & Complaints

Language generally develops along a pattern of developmental milestones, and if parents start to notice that their child is lagging behind these significant milestones, it may be symptomatic of a language disorder. In children, signs of a language disorder are usually present before the age of four.

There are several signs and symptoms that may indicate an issue with language. Receptive language disorders can sometimes be difficult to immediately identify whereas expressive language disorders are a bit easier to identify. A child or adult may have a few or all symptoms of a language disorder, and symptoms range from mild to severe from one individual to another and can include the following:

  • Issues with oral communication and expression
  • Difficulty understanding what others say
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty processing audio information
  • Late to start talking
  • Being difficult to understand
  • Comparatively limited vocabulary
  • Difficulty learning new words
  • Repetitive use of certain phrases
  • Appears frustrated by communication difficulties
  • Sentences do not make much sense though words are pronounced
  • Restricted variety of sentence structure


The causes of language disorders are not always well understood by medical professionals and sometimes the cause of a language disorder is not known (idiopathic). Much of the scientific research on language disorders also encompasses speech disorders. Causes may include the following:

Head and neck cancers and Parkinson's diseases and traumatic brain injury may cause acquired language disorders. Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease are additional causes of language disorders that affect adults.

Diagnosis & Tests

Children are usually diagnosed after a parent suspects there is a problem or that their child's speech is lagging behind. In order to diagnose a language disorder in a child, the physician must first rule out any sort of hearing problems that may have an impact on speech and language.

If there are no hearing issues and there are still concerns about language development, then a referral to a speech-language pathologist (or speech therapist) is warranted. The speech therapist will conduct a proper and thorough evaluation of the patient in order to identify any receptive or expressive language issues.

The speech therapist will interview the person and observe her or his language skills in various situations. This helps the therapist identify and analyze strengths and weaknesses in communication abilities. After the therapist makes a diagnosis, he or she will create an appropriate treatment plan for the patient. 

Treatment & Therapy

Early intervention is important for the successful treatment of any language disorder. Speech-language therapy is an effective treatment and therapy for various language and speech disorders. Individual speech therapy is very beneficial for people with a language disorder. One-on-one intervention with a speech therapist can help a child with a language disorder build her or his vocabulary as well as improve grammar.

The therapist will also work with the parents of a child with a language disorder so that they can work with their children at home. Parents are encouraged to communicate with their children as much as possible and to try to make communication a fun, interactive experience for their child. It is important to talk, sing and play music often. Children should be given plenty of time to respond.

Public schools can also help with the treatment of language disorders. A parent can request a formal evaluation to determine eligibility for special education services. If a child experiences difficulties that are severe enough to qualify for special education services, then an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be established by a team of educators. An IEP is unique for each child and it can cover speech therapy, social skills, and support in the classroom.

If a child does not qualify for an IEP, a parent can still request a 504 plan. A 504 plan is a written plan and it outlines the ways in which the school will accommodate the child's needs within the classroom. Help, patience, practice, and understanding are key to the successful management of language disorders.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Proper prenatal care and nutrition can help prevent language disorders in children. Research by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) suggests that taking folic acid during pregnancy decreases the chances of the development of a language disorder after the child is born.

Actively talking and reading with a child can help prevent language disorders and parents should have their child's ears and hearing checked on a regular basis. Children and adults alike should wear a helmet to help prevent brain injuries that may cause a language disorder.

In adults, a language disorder is often caused by a stroke. Adults can prevent the development of a language issue by taking care of their health. They should quit smoking or never smoke to begin with, and they should try to keep their blood pressure down.