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Language and Speech Disorders

Children are born ready to learn a language, but they need to learn the language or languages that their family and environment use. Learning a language takes time, and children vary in how quickly they master milestones in language and speech development. Typically developing children may have trouble with some sounds, words, and sentences while they are learning. However, most children can use language easily around 5 years of age.

Mother and baby talking and smiling

Helping children learn language

Parents and caregivers are the most important teachers during a child’s early years. Children learn language by listening to others speak and by practicing. Even young babies notice when others repeat and respond to the noises and sounds they make. Children’s language and brain skills get stronger if they hear many different words. Parents can help their child learn in many different ways, such as

  • Responding to the first sounds, gurgles, and gestures a baby makes.
  • Repeating what the child says and adding to it.
  • Talking about the things that a child sees.
  • Asking questions and listening to the answers.
  • Looking at or reading books.
  • Telling stories.
  • Singing songs and sharing rhymes.

This can happen both during playtime and during daily routines.

Parents can also observe the following:

Learn more about language milestonesWatch milestones in action.

Did you know?

Some languages are visual rather than spoken. American Sign Language uses visual signals, including gestures, facial expressions, and body movement to communicate.

What to do if there are concerns

Some children struggle with understanding and speaking and they need help. They may not master the language milestones at the same time as other children, and it may be a sign of a language or speech delay or disorder.

Language development has different parts, and children might have problems with one or more of the following:

  • Understanding what others say (receptive language). This could be due to
    • Not hearing the words (hearing loss).
    • Not understanding the meaning of the words.
  • Communicating thoughts using language (expressive language). This could be due to
    • Not knowing the words to use.
    • Not knowing how to put words together.
    • Knowing the words to use but not being able to express them.

Language and speech disorders can exist together or by themselves. Examples of problems with language and speech development include the following:

  • Speech disorders
    • Difficulty with forming specific words or sounds correctly.
    • Difficulty with making words or sentences flow smoothly, like stuttering or stammering.
  • Language delay – the ability to understand and speak develops more slowly than is typical
  • Language disorders
    • Aphasia (difficulty understanding or speaking parts of language due to a brain injury or how the brain works).
    • Auditory processing disorder (difficulty understanding the meaning of the sounds that the ear sends to the brain)

Learn more about language disorders.

Language or speech disorders can occur with other learning disorders that affect reading and writing. Children with language disorders may feel frustrated that they cannot understand others or make themselves understood, and they may act out, act helpless, or withdraw. Language or speech disorders can also be present with emotional or behavioral disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. Children with developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder may also have difficulties with speech and language. The combination of challenges can make it particularly hard for a child to succeed in school. Properly diagnosing a child’s disorder is crucial so that each child can get the right kind of help.

Detecting problems

Doctor examining toddler's ear with mom smiling

If a child has a problem with language development, talk to a healthcare provider about an evaluation. An important first step is to find out if the child may have a hearing loss. Hearing loss may be difficult to notice particularly if a child has hearing loss only in one ear or has partial hearing loss, which means they can hear some sounds but not others. Learn more about hearing loss, screening, evaluation, and treatment.

A language development specialist like a speech-language pathologist will conduct a careful assessment to determine what type of problem with language or speech the child may have.

Overall, learning more than one language does not cause language disorders, but children may not follow exactly the same developmental milestones as those who learn only one language. Developing the ability to understand and speak in two languages depends on how much practice the child has using both languages, and the kind of practice. If a child who is learning more than one language has difficulty with language development, careful assessment by a specialist who understands development of skills in more than one language may be needed.

Treatment for language or speech disorders and delays

Children with language problems often need extra help and special instruction. Speech-language pathologists can work directly with children and their parents, caregivers, and teachers.

Having a language or speech delay or disorder can qualify a child for early intervention (for children up to 3 years of age) and special education services (for children aged 3 years and older). Schools can do their own testing for language or speech disorders to see if a child needs intervention. An evaluation by a healthcare professional is needed if there are other concerns about the child’s hearing, behavior, or emotions. Parents, healthcare providers, and the school can work together to find the right referrals and treatment.

What every parent should know

Children with specific learning disabilities, including language or speech disorders, are eligible for special education services or accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504, an anti-discrimination law.

Get help from your state’s Parent Training and Information Center

The role of healthcare providers

Healthcare providers can play an important part in collaborating with schools to help a child with speech or language disorders and delay or other disabilities get the special services they need. The American Academy of Pediatrics has created a report that describes the roles that healthcare providers can have in helping children with disabilities, including language or speech disorders.

More information

CDC Information on Hearing Loss

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Birth to 5: Watch me thrive

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

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