What Are the Different Types of Language Disorders?

different types of language disorders
A language disorder affects the way a child comprehends or uses language

There are three different types of language disorders:

  1. Receptive language disorder: Children with receptive language disorder have difficulty understanding language. They struggle to comprehend words they hear or read, as well as what others are saying. They often respond in ways that don’t make sense.
  2. Expressive language disorder: Children with expressive language disorder have trouble using language. They may be able to understand what other people say but have trouble speaking with others and or expressing their thoughts, feelings, needs, and ideas through language. The disorder can affect spoken, written, and sign language.
  3. Mixed receptive-expressive language disorder: Children with both disorders at the same time have difficulty understanding what others say as well as being understood by others.

What is a language disorder?

A language disorder is a communication disorder that affects the way a child comprehends or uses language. This is different from a speech disorder, which affects the way a child produces sound.

Language disorders are often developmental disorders that start in early childhood and continue into adulthood. About 5% of young children are diagnosed with language disorders between the ages of 3 and 5, and they are twice more common in boys than in girls. 

Language disorders typically affect all forms of communication affecting a child’s performance at home, in school, and in social situations. A child with language disorder will have problems in learning all languages.

What causes language disorders?

Although the exact cause of language disorders is unknown, sometimes it is linked to a health problem or disability, such as:

The risk of having a language disorder increases with:

What are signs and symptoms of language disorders?

Language disorders present in early childhood, but symptoms may not be obvious until later when a child begins to be exposed to more complex language. Symptoms may range from mild to severe.

Receptive language disorder

Children with a receptive language disorder may have trouble with:

  • Understanding meanings of words and sentences
  • Understanding what people say
  • Understanding gestures
  • Learning new words
  • Understanding what they read
  • Understanding new concepts and ideas
  • Answering questions
  • Following instructions given to them
  • Organizing their thoughts
  • Identifying objects

Expressive language disorder

Children with an expressive language disorder may:

  • Have difficulty using words correctly
  • Speak in short or simple sentences
  • Struggle to put words in proper order
  • Have difficulty in asking questions
  • Have trouble using gestures
  • Have limited vocabulary compared to children of the same age
  • Speak less than other children
  • Omit words from sentences when talking
  • Use certain phrases repeatedly
  • Have trouble naming objects
  • Repeat or echo parts of or entire questions
  • Use past, present, and future tenses incorrectly
  • Leave out conjunctions, such as “and” or “but”
  • Struggle to apply various rules of standard spoken communication
  • Appear shy or reluctant to talk
  • Have difficulty telling stories, singing songs or reciting poems
  • Have difficulty finding suitable words when talking and often use sounds, such as “um,” while searching for the correct word


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What are complications of language disorders?

Children who have language disorders during preschool ages may present with the following in the future:

  • Reading disorder
  • Learning difficulty
  • Struggle with academics and socializing with peers
  • Problems functioning independently
  • Behavioral problems
  • Difficulties interacting with others and building relationships
  • Depression, social anxiety, and other emotional problems

How are language disorders diagnosed?

Language disorder diagnosis starts with a pediatrician ruling out hearing problems or other sensory impairments that could impact language. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) then evaluates the child’s ability to comprehend and express language.

The SLP will conduct standardized tests to observe how the child:

  • Listens
  • Speaks
  • Follows directions
  • Repeats phrases or rhymes
  • Understands names of things
  • Performs other language activities

In order to be diagnosed with a language disorder, a child must have an impairment in using language to communicate or carry on a conversation.

How are language disorders treated?

Language disorders can be treated in the following ways:

  • Speech and language therapy: A speech-language pathologist may use different methods to help the child with language development by:
    • Using toys, books, pictures, or objects
    • Boosting phonological awareness
    • Building vocabulary
    • Using strategies to improve reading comprehension
    • Using language to express complex ideas
    • Asking and answering questions
    • Engaging in simple activities, such as craft projects
    • Improving social communication skills with back-and-forth conversation
  • Counseling and cognitive behavior therapy: This helps treat related emotional or behavioral problems.
  • Home care: Parents can help language development in a child by:
    • Reading and narrating stories
    • Speaking clearly, slowly, and briefly
    • Listening and responding when the child speaks
    • Keeping the atmosphere relaxed
    • Making the child repeat instructions in their own words
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Language and Speech Disorders in Children. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/language-disorders.html

Rosenbaum S, Simon P (eds.). Speech and Language Disorders in Children. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Apr 6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK356279/

Vining CB, Guiberson M (eds.). Enhancing Language Services to Native American Children: A Look from the Inside. Language Disorders. June 2021; 41 (2). https://journals.lww.com/topicsinlanguagedisorders/pages/default.aspx