Learning Disabilities

What Do Language Processing Disorders Look Like in Adults?

The symptoms of expressive or receptive language disorders can vary from person to person. Read this general guideline to see what symptoms may indicate that you should seek a diagnosis.

An overwhelmed mom confides in her friend that she has ADHD.
An overwhelmed mom confides in her friend that she has ADHD.

Language processing disorders are brain-based conditions that make it difficult for someone to express himself or make sense of what is being said to him. Expressive language disorders are diagnosed when an individual struggles to produce language, speak in grammatically correct sentences, or translate thoughts into speech. Receptive language disorders can cause a person to misinterpret instructions, ignore when she’s being spoken to, or take simple jokes too seriously. Researchers cannot yet pinpoint the exact cause of language disorders, but existing research indicates that genetics are most likely involved: up to 40 percent of those with a family history of language disorders have the condition themselves — compared to just 4 percent of those with no family history of language disorders.

Language disorders can be developmental, meaning they are present from birth — though it’s certainly possible for someone to reach adulthood without being diagnosed. In other cases, however, they develop as the result of a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. Regardless of how they developed, symptoms of language processing disorders in adults look largely the same.

Symptoms at Home

Language processing challenges will likely interfere with your home relationships, and may even cause arguments or misunderstandings. Symptoms can include:

Expressive Language Disorder

  • Finds it hard to come up with exact words to say; substitutes “stuff” or “things” frequently, even for commonly used words
  • Substitutes related words, even when they don’t mean the same thing (says “couch” instead of “chair” or “beef” instead of “chicken”)
  • Frequently switches sounds within words, seemingly without noticing
  • Uses made-up words frequently when the correct word can’t be produced
  • Often says sentences that don’t make sense
  • Forgets words or says them out of order
  • Misuses idioms or says them incorrectly

Receptive Language Disorder

  • Doesn’t understand jokes; takes everything very literally
  • Finds it difficult to focus on what someone is saying, particularly if there is background noise like a television
  • Often seems disinterested in conversations, even with friends or loved ones
  • Can’t answer questions about what was just discussed

Symptoms at Work

Difficulties with language can impact your career by making it difficult for you to finish tasks or get along with coworkers. Symptoms in the workplace could include:

Expressive Language Disorders

  • Anxiety about having to speak in front of people or give a presentation
  • Trouble answering a direct question from your supervisor, even if you know the answer
  • Struggles to keep up with office small talk
  • Unable to master the “vocabulary” of your workplace, often saying the wrong word in work-related situations

Receptive Language Disorders

  • Can’t keep up during meetings, especially if more than one person is talking
  • Misinterprets friendly conversation as rude or confusing
  • Unable to answer questions during meetings
  • Trouble following multi-step verbal instructions; prefers to receive all assignments via email

If you notice these signs in yourself or someone close to you, seek the assistance of a speech and language specialist right away. Adults with language disorders — either developmental or the result of a brain injury — can benefit from speech therapy. Studies show that, while adult speech therapy is not always as successful as pediatric therapy, skilled therapists often make great strides or provide alternative options for overcoming language deficiencies. If cost is an issue, check out your local university’s speech and language department for low-cost speech therapy.