Language Delay

There are many kinds of speech and language disorders that can affect children. The four major areas in which these impairments occur are:

Articulation | speech impairments where the child produces sounds incorrectly (e.g., lisp, difficulty articulating certain sounds, such as “l” or “r”);

Fluency | speech impairments where a child’s flow of speech is disrupted by sounds, syllables, and words that are repeated, prolonged, or avoided and where there may be silent blocks or inappropriate inhalation, exhalation, or phonation patterns;

Voice | speech impairments where the child’s voice has an abnormal quality to its pitch, resonance, or loudness; and

Language | language impairments where the child has problems expressing needs, ideas, or information, and/or in understanding what others say. (1)

Development of Speech and Language Skills in Childhood

Speech and language skills develop in childhood according to fairly well-defined milestones. Parents and other caregivers may become concerned if a child’s language seems noticeably behind (or different from) the language of same-aged peers. This may motivate parents to investigate further and, eventually, to have the child evaluated by a professional.

Having the child’s hearing checked is a critical first step. The child may not have a speech or language impairment at all but, rather, a hearing impairment that is interfering with his or her development of language.

It’s important to realize that a language delay isn’t the same thing as a speech or language impairment. Language delay is a very common developmental problem—in fact, the most common, affecting 5-10% of children in preschool. With language delay, children’s language is developing in the expected sequence, only at a slower rate. In contrast, speech and language disorder refers to abnormal language development. Distinguishing between the two is most reliably done by a certified speech-language pathologist.

Characteristics of Speech or Language Impairments

The characteristics of speech or language impairments will vary depending upon the type of impairment involved. There may also be a combination of several problems.

When a child has an articulation disorder, he or she has difficulty making certain sounds. These sounds may be left off, added, changed, or distorted, which makes it hard for people to understand the child.

Leaving out or changing certain sounds is common when young children are learning to talk, of course. A good example of this is saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.” The incorrect articulation isn’t necessarily a cause for concern unless it continues past the age where children are expected to produce such sounds correctly (ASHA’s milestone resource pages, mentioned above, are useful here).

Fluency refers to the flow of speech. A fluency disorder means that something is disrupting the rhythmic and forward flow of speech—usually, a stutter. As a result, the child’s speech contains an “abnormal number of repetitions, hesitations, prolongations, or disturbances. Tension may also be seen in the face, neck, shoulders, or fists.”

Voice is the sound that’s produced when air from the lungs pushes through the voice box in the throat (also called the larynx), making the vocal folds within vibrate. From there, the sound generated travels up through the spaces of the throat, nose, and mouth, and emerges as our “voice.”

A voice disorder involves problems with the pitch, loudness, resonance, or quality of the voice. (6) The voice may be hoarse, raspy, or harsh. For some, it may sound quite nasal; others might seem as if they are “stuffed up.” People with voice problems often notice changes in pitch, loss of voice, loss of endurance, and sometimes a sharp or dull pain associated with voice use.

Language has to do with meanings, rather than sounds. (8) A language disorder refers to an impaired ability to understand and/or use words in context. (9) A child may have an expressive language disorder (difficulty in expressing ideas or needs), a receptive language disorder (difficulty in understanding what others are saying), or a mixed language disorder (which involves both).

Some characteristics of language disorders include:

  • improper use of words and their meanings
  • inability to express ideas
  • inappropriate grammatical patterns
  • reduced vocabulary
  • inability to follow directions

Children may hear or see a word but not be able to understand its meaning. They may have trouble getting others to understand what they are trying to communicate. These symptoms can easily be mistaken for other disabilities such as autism or learning disabilities, so it’s very important to ensure that the child receives a thorough evaluation by a certified speech-language pathologist.

What Causes Speech and Language Disorders?

Some causes of speech and language disorders include hearing loss, neurological disorders, brain injury, intellectual disabilities, drug abuse, physical impairments such as cleft lip or palate, and vocal abuse or misuse. Frequently, however, the cause is unknown.

If you believe your child might have a Language Delay or Speech and Language Disorder, visit your pediatrician.

Source: NICHCY Disability Fact Sheet 11 (FS11)