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What are language disorders?

By Gail Belsky

At a Glance

  • Language disorders make it hard to use and understand spoken language.

  • They’re not problems with speech or hearing.

  • There are three different types of language disorders.

Language disorders are a type of communication disorder. People who don’t know the term might think it has to do with speech. But language disorders are about trouble using and understanding spoken language.

Language Disorder Fact Sheet

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There are three main types of language disorder:

  1. Expressive language disorder : People have trouble getting their message across when they talk. They often struggle to put words together into sentences that make sense.

  2. Receptive language disorder : People struggle to get the meaning of what others are saying. Because of this, they often respond in ways that don’t make sense.

  3. Mixed receptive-expressive language issues: People struggle with both using and understanding language.

Language disorders are often developmental. They start in early childhood and continue into adulthood. But they can also be caused by a brain injury or illness.

Language disorders aren’t a matter of intelligence. People who have them are as smart as other people. But having a language disorder can make it challenging to learn and to connect with other people.

Dive Deeper

Signs of language disorders

The signs are different, depending on the type of language disorder and the age of the person. The signs start in early childhood and continue into adulthood.

Signs of expressive language disorder can show up very early. Kids are often late to talk and use very few words once they start. As they get older, they may often use vague words like stuff and thing. Or they may use words incorrectly.  

Signs of receptive language disorder typically appear a little later. Kids may not respond to what others say — or they may respond in ways that are off-topic. As they get older, they may misunderstand what people say and take things the wrong way.

For both of these language disorders, a common sign is lack of interaction. Kids and adults may avoid talking with people or being in a social setting. Learn more about:

How language disorders are diagnosed and treated

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 get evaluated for free at school or through their state’s early intervention system. 

Speech-language therapy is the main treatment for language disorders. Kids may get this service for free at school or through early intervention . The earlier a child gets help with language challenges, the better. 

Adults can also get an evaluation and work with speech-language therapists. But they’ll need to find one who works privately. (Insurance may or may not cover these services.) 

And people with language disorders may be able to get accommodations at school and on the job to make it easier to learn and perform at work. 

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