Learning Disabilities

What Language Processing Disorders Look Like in Children

Signs of a language disorder may appear as your child is learning to talk, or they may emerge after he’s enrolled in school. Get a breakdown of signs and symptoms, plus steps to take if you notice trouble.

A child with a language processing disorder talking on the phone
boy child talking over mobile phone sitting on bed

Your child was slow to start talking, and now struggles to form sentences or commonly misunderstands what you say to her. Is she just a late bloomer — or could she be showing signs of a language processing disorder?

Language disorders — either expressive or receptive — are learning disabilities that originate in the brain and make it hard for individuals to express themselves or understand what’s being said to them. 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 the rules of grammar — even before she starts speaking in complex sentences. A child with a receptive language disorder will seldom 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 instructions like “Get your coat”).

Children progress through developmental milestones at different ages, which is why doctors provide a “normal” range; for example, babies normally take their first steps sometime between the ages of 9 and 15 months. Starting to talk is the same; there is no exact age when a child will say his first word or use his first sentence, but most children begin experimenting with words around the same age they’re experimenting with upright motion.

Some kids, however, are considered “late talkers.” These are children between the ages of 18 and 30 months who have a good understanding of language and who demonstrate social skills, thinking skills, and motor skills typical for their age, but have a limited vocabulary. Not every late talker turns out to have a language disorder, and some children do appear to catch up after slipping developmentally behind their peers. However, most experts agree that the development of speech and language should follow a basic trajectory, and being a late talker may be one early sign that something is amiss. If a child exhibits the following signs of a language disorder, parents should consider speaking to their doctor about an evaluation.

[How to Support Children with Language Processing Disorders: A Parent’s Guide]

Symptoms of a Language Disorder at Home

Language disorders, unlike most other learning disabilities, usually show signs long before a child starts school — in fact, symptoms can appear as early as one year old. Early signs of expressive language disorder include:

  • 15 months: Vocabulary of less than three words; the child uses primarily vowel sounds when vocalizing
  • 18 months: Not saying “Mama,” “Dada,” or identifying other known people by name
  • 24 months: Vocabulary of less than 25 words; doesn’t spontaneously exclaim when surprised or delighted
  • 30 months: Not using simple two-word sentences (noun + verb); difficult to understand most of the time
  • 36 months: Vocabulary of less than 200 words; not asking for known objects by the correct name; repeats others’ words when spoken to or asked a question
  • Beyond: Speaks differently from other children of the same age; uses words incorrectly or uses related words instead

Early signs of a receptive language disorder include:

  • 15 months: Doesn’t look at or point at objects when they’re named; doesn’t respond when name is called
  • 18 months: Unable to follow simple one-step directions, such as “Pick up the ball.”
  • 24 months: Doesn’t point to body parts when named (like when parents ask “Where’s your nose?”); difficulty attending when being read to
  • 30 months: Does not respond to questions, either with spoken answers or nodding/shaking the head
  • 36 months: Unable to follow two-step directions (“Go to your room and get your hat”); has difficulty participating in group activities; forgets or confuses the names of familiar people

In addition, these early warning signs may point to both expressive and receptive language disorders:

  • Says one or two words within the normal age range, but does not add further words and expand vocabulary
  • Gestures or points in the place of speech past 18 months old
  • Does not imitate sounds or words spoken by parents
  • May understand language at home but has difficulty understanding when outside the home

Symptoms of Language Disorders at School

If your child has started school and you’ve begun to worry that he’s not building his language skills at the same rate as his peers, ask his teacher to watch out for these common signs that can manifest in older children with language disorders.

Signs of an expressive language disorder include:

  • Tends to repeat the teacher’s words when answering a question in class
  • Rarely raises her hand or speaks up without being called on
  • Keeps to himself at recess; doesn’t chat much with friends or classmates
  • Takes notes during lectures and seems to be keeping up, but can’t answer questions about what she just heard
  • Makes frequent errors when speaking, leaving out words or mixing up verb tenses

Symptoms of a receptive language disorder include:

  • Never seems to be listening to a lesson, even if it’s particularly engaging
  • Waits to see what other kids are doing before starting work on a project
  • Answers questions with information that is irrelevant to what is being asked
  • When spoken to directly, often asks the teacher to repeat herself
  • When given multi-step instructions, only completes a few of the steps

If your child shows several of the above symptoms, at any age, it may be time to seek an evaluation for a language disorder. Don’t be surprised if other people you speak to dismiss your concerns; it seems that everyone has a “distant cousin” or a “friend of a friend” who didn’t start talking until age 5 — and is perfectly fine now. While some kids who start late do seem to catch up in language skills eventually, not every child does. Go with your gut — particularly if your child is already in school. If you think your child is significantly behind her peers, consider getting her tested — no matter what you’ve heard about “late bloomers.”