Before we define “language disorders”, let’s first explain what “language” means. To simplify, language is comprised of two parts:

  • attending to, understanding, and remembering what is being said or what is being read (receptive skills), and
  • using words to communicate effectively in speaking or writing (expressive skills).

Language disorders are characterized by delays/difficulties in receptive and/or expressive language abilities. Kids with speech/language problems are more at risk for developing problems with academics, literacy (reading and writing), and self-esteem. So, having a solid foundation in speech and language abilities can help make school easier for your child and can help them become more confident when interacting socially with their peers.

Child Language Development:

A child’s language development progresses thru different stages as they grow and mature. The following gives you some of the highlights of language development that occur in the first five years of life. Typically, children respond to their name and understand simple instructions by the time they are 12 months old. By age two, children begin to understand simple questions and can typically follow 2-step directions (without the parent’s use of gestures/pointing). As they reach three, children can typically understand and correctly respond to “who”, “what”, and “where” questions and understand basic prepositional phrases such as ‘put the block under the chair”. By age four, children can typically understand time and spatial concepts (yesterday, in front of), follow longer directions, (“When you are finished eating, put on your shoes and go get your backpack”), and can understand that things happened in the past or will happen in the future.

Children use language for a variety of purposes, such as to communicate their wants/needs, to ask, to comment, and to express their thoughts and ideas. In addition to sentence length, expressive language also incorporates a child’s vocabulary, their appropriate use grammar, and their social use of language. Children begin to express themselves as infants when they begin to coo and babble between four and six months of age. Their first words typically begin around 12 months of age, they begin to combine two words (i.e. “mommy up”) between 18-24 months, and then they speak in more complex sentences between the ages of 2 and 2 ½ years. They start to use past tense, verbs, plurals, and combine nouns and verbs to make sentences. Children typically have an expressive vocabulary of about 400 words by the age of 2 and nearly 1000 words when they are 3 years old. By 3 years of age, children can typically tell a story or relay an idea to someone and use words to relate observations, concepts, ideas, and relationships. Between 3-4 years of age, many of their sentences have more than 4 words and they talk about things that they have done at daycare, preschool, or when playing with a friend. Between 4-5 years of age, children use longer and more complex sentences, they ask more questions to know “how” or “why”, and they communicate well with their peers and with adults.

Warning Signs to Look For:

Receptive language:

  • Does not respond to his/her name or attend to the speaker-may even appear that the child does not seem to hear you
  • Difficulty following directions, particularly directions that are new to them
  • Difficulty pointing to or identifying everyday objects or pictures when asked
  • Difficulty responding appropriately to questions. Either doesn’t respond or gives an off-topic answer (i.e. when asked, “where do you want to go for lunch?”, the child answers “a cheeseburger”)
  • Repeats back words or phrases to the parent without seeming to understand what he/she is saying – also known as Echolalia
  • Repeats back a question before answering it

Expressive language:

  • Not using any real words (or words like “buh” for “ball”, or “moo” for “cow”), by 15 months of age
  • Has difficulty putting words together to express thoughts
  • Experiences difficulty naming objects or vocabulary is limited
  • Makes grammatical errors not expected for age
  • Has difficulty getting others to understand what he/she is trying to communicate even with repeated attempts
  • Has difficulty with social use of language such as greetings, beginning or maintaining a topic of conversation, maintaining eye contact
  • Becomes frustrated and/or gives up on trying to communicate. May act out physically or withdraw after failed communication attempts

How Can Language Problems be Helped?

For some children, language therapy is needed to help the child fully develop their speech and language skills. After a thorough evaluation, language therapy begins with building on the child’s present level of communication skills. For young children (ages 1-3), this is typically done thru play, which is how children learn best. The goal of language therapy is to teach the child the necessary skills they need in order to communicate with their family and peers, in addition to educating the parent and providing a home program to ensure carryover of these skills. Parents are taught the best ways to help build their child’s language development, based on the child’s age and their specific areas of concern. Depending on the child’s age and communication level, areas addressed in language therapy may include increasing a child’s use of language to get basic wants and needs met, using sign language in addition to spoken language, building a child’s understanding and use of everyday vocabulary and how these items are related, developing correct grammar skills, building their knowledge of basic time and spatial concepts, improving social language skills, and following directions.

Having a solid foundation in speech and language abilities can help make academics easier for your child and can also help them become more confident when interacting at home, school, socially, and in the community.