Language Processing Disorders: Overview and Facts

Language disorders impact a person’s ability to understand what others are saying, or translate even the simplest thoughts into words. Learn the basics of these complex and surprisingly common conditions.

Cartoon children demonstrating an overview of basic language disorder facts

We all know the feeling: You’re in the middle of telling a great story when suddenly the word you’re looking for stops dead in its tracks “on the tip of your tongue.” Or you’re 10 minutes into a conversation before you realize you haven’t taken in a word the other person is saying. For neurotypical people, these brief mental slipups can be annoying, but for someone with an expressive or receptive language disorder, they can be a constant reality. And the cumulative effect of a lifetime of communication difficulties can be devastating.

What is a language disorder? Simply put, it’s an impairment that affects the way someone communicates through spoken language. A person with an expressive language disorder will find it difficult to find the right words or outline their thoughts clearly when speaking. Someone with a receptive language disorder will struggle to understand what others are saying, to follow directions, or to maintain attention. It’s also possible to suffer from a combination of expressive and receptive language disorders.

Language disorders are more common than you may think. Experts estimate that up to 5 percent of children in the United States have some type of language disorder — though many remain undiagnosed — and currently more than 1 million children are receiving special education specific to language disorders in the U.S. public school system.

What Causes Language Disorders?

Researchers aren’t sure on the exact cause of language disorders, but existing research indicates that genetics may be involved: up to 40 percent of children with a family history of language disorders have the condition themselves — compared to just 4 percent of children with no family history of language disorders.

A baby’s prenatal environment might also play a role, particularly if the mother has a folic acid deficiency. Studies have shown that taking a folic acid supplement during pregnancy may decrease the likelihood of the child being born with a language disorder.

Language disorders are most often developmental, like learning disabilities. However, they can start to manifest as a result of a neurological illness or a traumatic event affecting the brain, such as a stroke or a head injury. When language disorders are caused by specific damage to the brain, they’re referred to as aphasia.

What Does a Language Disorder Look Like?

While language disorders vary widely from person to person, the condition usually follows general developmental patterns and guidelines. For starters, when a child is born with a language disorder, he or she is often a “late talker”; problems usually appear before age 4. Though language disorders are sometimes diagnosed in those with intellectual disabilities, they most often appear in those with average or above-average intelligence — though those with language disorders may find they have trouble demonstrating that intelligence to the outside world.

A child with an expressive language disorder will generally have a small vocabulary for her age, will struggle to ask for things by the correct name, and will often have difficulty following rules of grammar — even before she starts speaking in complex sentences. A child with a receptive language disorder will often not look at objects when they’re named, and as he gets older, will likely have problems understanding jokes or following directions (even simple one-step directions like “Get your coat”).


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