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Language Difficulties

Many children present with language difficulties (delay or disorder), and these difficulties can present and affect language in different ways. Below are some commonly described language problems. These might be known by a variety of different names and many children will have a combination of these difficulties. Click on the links to find out more information about each difficulty:

  • Expressive language disorder – this is a child’s ability to express ideas and information verbally. It reflects the child’s ability to produce language, and their use of vocabulary and grammar.
  • Receptive language disorder – this refers to a child’s ability to comprehend incoming auditory information. These skills are required for effective listening, processing and understanding of spoken information.
  • Specific Language Impairment (SLI) – this describes a language difficulty that is not related to hearing difficulties, autism, or low IQ, although child may have other co-occurring problems such as delayed speech or literacy skills
  • Word Finding Difficulties – this describes a child that may have a good vocabulary knowledge but is slow and/or inaccurate at retrieving words during conversation or when asked questions


Other reasons for language delay

  • Auditory processing Disorders – this is disorder of processing language, and can be especially noticeable when the child has to try and follow language when there is lots of background noise
  • Working Memory difficulties- some children have difficulties with working memory and this is often mis-diagnosed as auditory processing disorder or receptive language delay
  • Processing Speed difficulties – some children require more time to process information as they hear it. If lots of information is presented quickly, the child will only be able to process and remember some of that information
  • Autism – autism often presents with associated language difficulties. Sometimes these difficulties will relate to the subtle aspects of language such as understanding abstract aspects of language and interpreting things very literally.
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD) – although ADD does not cause language difficulties, kids with this condition often have associated language difficulties. Having ADD will also affect a child’s ability to listen and attend which will then affect their ability to learn language and follow instructions.
  • Brain Injury – a traumatic brain injury can affect language skills and language development if certain parts of the brain are injured.
  • Genetics – Specific Language difficulties can be hereditary, but there are many genetic syndromes that can also affect language development
  • Hearing Difficulties – difficulties with hearing will almost always affect the development of language.


The above disorders describe a range of often co-occurring difficulties, and there are many more specific labels for other types of language problems. However, whatever the problem, language difficulties can have very serious effects on the academic achievements, and well-being of the child if they are unable to express themselves or unable to understand what is going on around them. Approximately three quarters of children with identified emotional and behavioural difficulties have significant language deficits. Many children with language difficulties or delay also have other associated difficulties such as speech and literacy delay. If you suspect your child has a language difficulty refer them to a speech and language pathologist/ therapist for assessment.


How we learn language

Learning language is a complex process, but for most children it comes quite naturally in the first few years of life. We learn words and their meaning before we start to use them properly. This means that in the early years of life the size of child’s receptive language (the amount of words they know and understand) is greater than their expressive language (the amount of words they use when speaking).

Normally developing young children watch and listen. They are good at being able to focus on what adults are talking about and make connections between what they hear and what they see. When they hear certain words several times they will learn them and store them. As they get older they will attempt to say these words and eventually put these words into sentences, as well as be able to understand whole sentences when they hear them.

Learning language is much more complex than this though, because young children still have to learn:

  • To put all the words in a sentence in the right order
  • Different forms of grammar – nouns, adverbs, prepositions etc
  • Different syntax – I walk, I walked, I am walking…
  • Understand and use different intonation patterns to understand and change meaning
  • Understand abstract language such as metaphor – “it’s the cats pyjamas!”

So it is no wonder, that some children (and adults!) have difficulty using and understanding language.

An important factor in the acquisition of good language skills is the language environment that the children plays and learns in. Lots of quality interaction and play with other children and adults is great for language development. Developing good listening and attention skills is also one of the building blocks of good language development. Lots of time in front of the TV or computer with a dummy (pacifier) in the child’s mouth is really not beneficial for developing language skills. Looking at books with your children is one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary and improve there literacy development. If you go to our Milestones Section you can see how a child’s language develops from birth to 7 years.

If you have concerns about your child’s language development you should contact your local speech and language pathologist / therapist (SLT/P) for language assessment and language therapy. The SLT/P will assess your child, carry out necessary therapy and offer you advice and programs to improve your child’s language skills. Assessment will possibly involve formal and informal testing which will allow the SLT/P to tailor appropriate therapy activities and programs accordingly.


Different Types of Language Problems and their Causes

Click on the links below to read about the different types of language problems that children and adults can experience:

Expressive Language Disorders and Delay

Receptive Language Delay (understanding and comprehension)

Specific Language Impairment (SLI)

Auditory Processing Disorder

Working Memory Difficulties

Word Finding Difficulties

Processing Speed Difficulties


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Expressive Language Disorder

A child with expressive language disorder or delay may present with normal speech skills, but the language they use will be equivalent to that of a younger child. For instance, they may be using shorter sentences, making grammatical errors, or have a low vocabulary knowledge. Some language difficulties are so severe that the child’s sentences make no …

Receptive Language Disorder (Comprehension and Understanding)

Children with receptive language disorder have difficulties with the comprehension of language, understanding words, sentence structures or concepts. Some children are good at compensating for a receptive language difficulty by being able to pick out key words in sentences and follow non-verbal clues such as the gesture or eye gaze of the speaker. In the …

Specific Language Impairment (SLI)

  What is Specific Language Impairment (SLI)? Some children have what is called a Specific Language Impairment (SLI). An SLI has no obvious related cause such as hearing loss, autism, or learning difficulties. The condition appears in young children and is known to persist into adulthood, with some studies stating that as many of 7% …

Auditory Processing Disorder

What is Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)? Let us start by saying that this is rather a controversial subject. The nature of this disorder (if it is a disorder) has been hotly debated for sometime. To give it a simple explanation it describes a disorder where a person’s hearing is normal, but when they hear information, …