Language disorder in children refers to problems with either:
Some children only have an expressive language disorder. Others have a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder, meaning that they have symptoms of both conditions.
Children with language disorders are able to produce sounds, and their speech can be understood.
For most infants and children, language develops naturally beginning at birth. To develop language, a child must be able to hear, see, understand, and remember. Children must also have the physical ability to form speech.
Up to 1 out of every 20 children has symptoms of a language disorder. When the cause is unknown, it is called a developmental language disorder.
Problems with receptive language skills usually begin before age 4. Some mixed language disorders are caused by a brain injury, and these are sometimes misdiagnosed as developmental disorders.
Language disorders may occur in children with other developmental problems, autistic spectrum disorders, hearing loss, and learning disabilities. A language disorder may also be caused by damage to the central nervous system, which is called aphasia.
Language disorders are rarely caused by a lack of intelligence.
Language disorders are different than delayed language. With delayed language, the child develops speech and language in the same way as other children, but later. In language disorders, speech and language do not develop normally. The child may have some language skills, but not others. Or, the way in which these skills develop will be different than usual.
A child with language disorder may have one or two of the symptoms listed below, or many of the symptoms. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Children with a receptive language disorder have difficulty understanding langugae. They may have:
Children with an expressive language disorder have problems using language to express what they are thinking or need. These children may:
Because of their language problems, these children may have difficulty in social settings. At times, language disorders may be part of the cause of severe behavioral problems.
A medical history may reveal that the child has close relatives who have also had speech and language problems.
Any child suspected of having this disorder can have standardized receptive and expressive language tests. A speech and language therapist or neuropsychologist will administer these tests.
Speech and language therapy is the best approach to treating this type of language disorder.
Psychological therapy (psychotherapy, counseling, or cognitive behavioral therapy) is also recommended because of the possibility of related emotional or behavioral problems.
The outcome varies based on the cause. Brain injury or other structural problems generally have a poor outcome, in which the child will have long-term problems with language. Other, more reversible causes can be treated effectively.
Many children who have language problems during the preschool years will also have some language problems or learning difficulty later in childhood. They may also have reading disorders.
Difficulty understanding and using language can cause problems with social interaction and the ability to function independently as an adult.
Reading may be a problem.
Depression, anxiety, and other emotional or behavioral problems may complicate language disorders.
Parents who are concerned that their child's speech or language is delayed should see their primary care provider. Ask about getting a referral to a speech and language therapist.
Children who are diagnosed with this condition may need to be seen by a neurologist or children's developmental specialist to determine if the cause can be treated.
Call your child's health care provider if you see the following signs that your child does not understand language well:
Also call if you notice these signs that your child does not use or express language well:
Developmental aphasia; Developmental dysphasia; Delayed language; Specific developmental language disorder; SLI; Communication disorder - language disorder
Sharp HM, Hillenbrand K. Speech and language development and disorders in children. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2008;55:1159-1173.
Simms MD. Language disorders in children: classification and clinical syndromes. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2007;54:437-467.
Simms MD, Schum RL. Language development and communication disorders, In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap32.
Updated by: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc. Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine.
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