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Verified by Psychology Today

Language disorder is a communication disorder in which a person has persistent difficulties in learning and using various forms of language such as spoken, written, or signed. They may struggle to understand the words they hear or see. While they do not have trouble physically making sounds, they may not be able to use language effectively to communicate.

Individuals with language disorder have language abilities significantly below those expected for their age, limiting their ability to effectively communicate or participate in many social, academic, or professional activities. However, they are not necessarily less intelligent than other children.


Language learning and use relies on both expressive and receptive abilities. Expressive ability refers to the production of verbal or gestural signals, while receptive ability refers to the process of receiving and understanding language. Individuals with language disorder may have impairments in either ability, or both, and the symptoms first appear early in childhood development.

People with language disorder have difficulty both learning and using written, spoken, or sign language. They also typically have a limited vocabulary, have trouble constructing sentences and using tenses, and may put words in the wrong order. Because they typically have a limited understanding of vocabulary and grammar, they may also have a limited capacity for engaging in conversation.

How might a parent or doctor identify language disorder in a child?

Children with language disorder are usually delayed in learning or speaking their first words and phrases. When they do speak, their sentences are shorter and less complex than would be expected for their age. Individuals with language disorder typically speak with grammatical errors, have a small vocabulary, and may have trouble finding the right word at times. In conversation, they may not be able to provide adequate information about the events they’re discussing or tell a coherent story. Because children with language disorder may have difficulty understanding what other people say, they may have an unusually hard time following directions.

Does a child whose first words are late have language disorder?

Not necessarily. Language skills are highly variable in young children, and many children who are late in speaking their first words or phrases do not develop language disorder. Delayed language acquisition is not predictive of language disorder until age 4, when individual differences in language ability become more stable. Language disorder that is diagnosed at age 4 or later is likely to be stable over time and to persist into adulthood.

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As many as 1 in 20 children have a language disorder. In many cases, the cause is unknown. A brain injury, birth defects, or problems in pregnancy may lead to language disorder, but, as with other communication disorders, the condition has a strong genetic component: Individuals with language disorder are more likely to have family members with a history of language impairment.

Do people with language disorder often have other developmental disorders?

Yes. Language disorder is strongly associated with other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as specific learning disorder (literacy and numeracy), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and developmental coordination disorder.


The treatment for language disorder is often effective (although less so when the condition is caused by brain injury or similar trauma). Treatment primarily consists of speech and language therapy in order to improve expressive and receptive language skills and with effective treatment, significant improvement can be achieved, although some symptoms may remain in adulthood. Receptive language deficits (difficulty understanding language) is generally more difficult to treat than expressive impairments (difficulty producing speech).

Psychotherapy can be a helpful tool to manage the emotional and behavioral issues that may arise in children with language disorder. For those whose language disorder symptoms lead to social anxiety or depression, cognitive-behavioral therapy can often be helpful.

How can parents help a child with language disorder?

Treatment for language disorder should begin as early as possible, as research suggests that children whose deficits are addressed early have better prognoses. A speech-language pathologist will typically ask parents to work with their child daily to help promote their comprehension and speech, such as reading aloud to them every day, listening closely and responding when their child talks, encouraging them to ask questions, and pointing out words all around them.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing  
Child Mind Institute
Last updated: 01/07/2022