Language Disorders: Does Your Child Struggle With Spoken Language?

Language Disorders may be the reason your child has a hard time using and understanding spoken language (speech). A language disorder can make it difficult for a child to express herself through speech, even though she knows many words. In other cases, a child has no problem making herself understood, but has trouble understanding others when they speak. Then there are the children who have trouble with both: making themselves understood, and understanding what others say to them. Children with language disorders need speech-language therapy and often need accommodations in the classroom.

A language disorder is not a hearing problem or a problem with making sounds or forming words. Language disorders are communication disorders. A child with a language disorder may find it hard to find and put together the right words to say what she is thinking. In other cases, a child may understand every word of what her teacher tells her, but still not understand the sense of the words when put together in a sentence and spoken aloud.

speech language therapy girl language disorders
An understanding teacher can make a big difference to a child with a language disorder. Patience is everything.

Three Main Types of Language Disorders

Language disorders come in three different types:

  • Expressive Language Disorder makes it hard to put the words together to say what one is thinking.
  • Receptive Language Disorder makes it difficult to understand the meaning of what other people are saying. As a result, the listener may respond in a way that makes little sense.
  • Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder makes it tough to both use and understand spoken language.

Language disorders tend to be developmental. A developmental language disorder will often begin in early childhood, and continue as the child grows into adulthood. Sometimes, however, language disorders develop because of illness or an injury to the brain.

Language disorders have nothing to do with how smart a person is. A genius can just as well have a language disorder as anyone else. A language disorder can make it difficult for a child of normal intelligence to learn in the classroom and to communicate and connect with other people.

toddler holds hand over mouth represents language disorders
At this age, he may have fewer words, or not be able to arrange words into a proper sentence: “Me want go play.”

Examples of Expressive Language Disorder

Language disorders show themselves in different ways. What you see may depend on the kind of language disorder and the age of the person who has the disorder. A young child with expressive language disorder may be late to start talking, and have only a few words once he begins. The child may have problems with syntax: “Me go to the store,” or, “Her took my baseball glove.”

In young children, an expressive language disorder may be mostly an issue of grammar. As children age, however, it becomes more of a semantics issue. The older child will be missing vocabulary words: nouns, adjectives, and verbs.

In normal speech, descriptive language helps make our meaning clear to others, offering context: a picture of what it is we are talking about. In language disorders, descriptive language is often missing. The sort of speech that lacks descriptive language is called empty speech.

Since children with an expressive language disorder are missing vocabulary, they tend to use a lot of “fillers,” sounds and words like “um,” “like,” “thing,” “you know,” “that.” They don’t have the words so they use these fillers, instead. Sometimes, word retrieval is an issue, so other words may be substituted. A child who cannot remember the word “pajamas” might say “sleep pants.” Here, the child uses words he does know, to describe other things. Sometimes children with expressive language disorder misuse words when they cannot find the right words to use. All four-legged animals may be “dogs,” or even simply, “things.”

therapist works with little girl who has language disorders
Therapy with a speech-language therapist is crucial for children with language disorders.

In the case where the child is missing adjectives, everything that he describes might be either “small” or “big” even when he means “wide,” “tall,” “narrow,” or “high.” There are certain words they are just missing, so they use the most simplified versions of those words. A child might refer to a boy as “big” when what he really means is “tall.”

An older child with expressive language disorder may find it easier to say, “I don’t know” than to answer your questions. He knows the answers, but finds it hard to find and use the words to say what he is thinking. The child will therefore try to avoid using speech by saying he doesn’t know, or give only the briefest of answers, perhaps changing the tone his voice or his pitch to help make the meaning clear.

Signs of receptive language disorder tend to show up only later. A child may not respond during conversation, or respond in a way that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. The child may often interrupt during lessons or conversations. Some children find it hard to pay attention in class or to follow directions. Sometimes a child with a receptive language disorder may even get angry because he misunderstands what someone says and gets his feelings hurt.

In both expressive and receptive language disorders, it is common to see both kids and adults avoiding interaction with others. Social situations requiring conversation, such as at a party or a date, are difficult for someone with a language disorder. They would just as soon stay home than struggle with chitchat. It’s not much fun to be with others when it is hard to express yourself in words or understand the sense of what other people are saying to you.

teenage girl avoids gathering because of language disorders
A teen with a language disorder may want to avoid hanging out with friends.

Expressive Language Disorder Signs By Age

A person with expressive language disorder finds it difficult to make himself understood. Expressive language disorder is not something you outgrow, and it has nothing to do with being smart or having a small vocabulary. People with this expressive language disorder will find some language skills a challenge. Here are some of the signs of expressive language disorder according to age:


  • Late to begin talking
  • Skips over important words
  • Knows fewer words than his/her peers
  • Uses hand gestures to express ideas
  • Has difficulty with simple rhyming words (cat, hat, ball, tall)

Grade School

  • Uses broad, nonspecific words like “stuff” or “thing”
  • Has trouble remembering words
  • Doesn’t always use words correctly
  • Doesn’t talk a lot, seems shy or introverted
  • Uses “mmm” and “uh” to make more time for finding the words

Middle School

  • Stays to him or herself, rather than interacting with peers and teachers
  • Has fewer words compared to his/her peers
  • Needs time to think before answering even simple questions
  • Answers complex questions with short answers
  • Mixes up tenses and skips important words

High School

  • Tells stories out of order or not in a logical way
  • Skips over pronouns and verbs in writing assignments
  • Stays away from social situations
  • Stays out of group conversations
teenage boy ostracized has language disorders
A language disorder can be very isolating for a teenager.


  • Finds workplace chat a struggle, avoids interacting with co-workers
  • Sticks to using short, simple language and answers
  • Tends to use the same few phrases again and again
  • Struggles with making speeches or presentations

Language Disorders: Emotional Toll

An expressive language disorder can be disheartening and cause a lot of frustration. Your child may find it embarrassing to struggle so hard with words. Parents of a child with a language disorder should watch out for signs of anxiety and depression. Seek help if your child is finding it hard to cope.

Serious girl uses facial expressions instead of words because of language disorders
The words don’t come easy, but a face can say a thousand words–especially when a child is in distress.

The good news is that speech-language therapy can make a big difference in honing language skills, especially when begun at an early age. An improvement in your child’s communication skills can go a long way toward improving your child’s whole outlook. Your child may be able to get speech-language therapy in school. Parents can also find out if their child is eligible for accommodations in the classroom that can make it easier to learn and take tests.

While the main therapy for language disorders is speech-language therapy, parents can do much at home. Be patient and relaxed when speaking with your child. Never rush your child’s speech or jump in to fill the silence. Give your child lots of time to find the words she needs to say what she thinks and to respond to questions.

Take the time to practice with your child what to do in different social situations. Role-playing can help give your child more confidence when communicating with peers at a party or in the schoolyard at recess. Point out the facial expressions and changes in vocal pitch that offer clues on how your child might respond to a given situation. Look for apps that hone communication and listening comprehension skills.

boy role plays telephone call with dad language disorders
Even a toddler can practice role-playing a phone call with Daddy.

Diagnosing and Treating Language Disorders

Diagnosing language disorders begins with a hearing test to rule out any problem with hearing that might affect language. If your child’s hearing is fine, the next step is an evaluation with a speech-language therapist. Such an evaluation should be offered free of charge, either through the child’s school, or a state-sponsored early intervention program.

A language disorder diagnosis starts with ruling out hearing issues that could have an impact on language. Next comes an evaluation by a speech-language therapist. Kids can receive a free evaluation at school or through their state’s early intervention system.

Once language disorders are diagnosed, it is important to begin speech-language therapy as soon as possible. Speech-language therapy is the chief treatment for language disorders. Schools may offer speech-language therapy at no cost. In some states, speech-language therapy is available without charge through early intervention programs. The sooner your child begins therapy, the more progress your child is likely to make with her language and communication skills.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.