Some academics (and a few clinicians) spend a lot of time arguing with each other about what to call children’s language problems. Some of the main terms you may have come across are language delay, developmental language disorder, language impairment, language learning disability, and specific language impairment.
Sometimes, language delays are related to diagnosed physical or intellectual disabilities. Often, though, language disorders have no clear cause, even if there are some factors that increase the risk of delay, e.g. a family history of language problems or late talking.
Parents, family, friends and pre-school teachers often pick up on a child’s language problems, e.g. if, compared to other children of the same age, the child:
- doesn’t talk enough (or at all);
- speaks like someone reading a telegram, e.g. “dog eat bone”, instead of “the black dog ate the tasty bone”;
- doesn’t understand what people around them are talking about, e.g. can’t follow instructions to sit down or get dressed;
- has problems with basic concepts (colours, numbers, and other early concepts like “on/off”, “big/small” and tall/short”);
- has problems finding the right word to name people, places, objects and concepts (e.g. using vague words like “thing” and “it” to describe common household objects);
- makes lots of grammar and syntax errors when speaking or writing (e.g. confusing tenses, getting the word order wrong, leaving out plurals, not using words like “a”, “the”, and “is”, not knowing past tenses such as “taught” and “ran”, or getting “he” and “she” confused);
- doesn’t use language appropriately in different social settings, e.g. interrupting speakers or not saying “hello” when meeting someone new;
- can’t re-tell a coherent story;
- has problems reading, writing or spelling at school; and/or
- doesn’t understand jokes, famous sayings and proverbs, metaphors or similes.
Sometimes children with language delays appear passive and unresponsive to what’s going on around them. Others have no problems starting conversations, but don’t respond appropriately to what their partner says and does. Still others have problems taking turns, keeping on topic and switching topics smoothly.
Many researchers have published developmental milestones of so-called “normal language development”. But each child develops differently, and it’s important not to panic if your child doesn’t achieve every milestone on “schedule”.
If you are concerned about your child’s language development compared to his or her peers – particularly if your child seems frustrated or is withdrawing from social interaction, we recommend checking in with a speech language pathologist, who can assess your child holistically with standardised tests, observations of play, parent interviews, and an analysis of language samples. Some language problems can be difficult to treat, and, as a general rule, it’s better to pick up and start treating the problem as soon as possible.
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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.