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Language disorders are developmental conditions that affect a person’s ability to read, write, and understand spoken or written language.

They are often treated as part of a larger group of communication disorders.

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What is a Language Disorder?

Language disorders may involve difficulties with the forms that language takes, which include issues forming or understanding the sounds it uses, the way words are constructed about their meaning, and the systems regarding word order; they may involve difficulties understanding the content and meaning of what they are saying or learning; they may involve difficulties in communicating with spoken or written language in everyday life. Language disorders include the ability to understand and use language and may often be seen or treated in tandem with speech disorders or other communication disorders.

A crucial aspect of education is helping children make themselves understood and teaching them how to understand others. Special education professionals and speech therapists often focus on improving a student’s ability to use spoken and written language as the primary goal in treating a language disorder. Some students may need special accommodations to express themselves. However, there are many other ways to help students with language disorders. These communication issues can often isolate students and affect their social development. Language disorders may also be symptoms of other conditions or issues which should be considered when teaching or accommodating students.

Language and communication disorders are not only the province of specialized professionals. Every educator needs to know how to be sensitive to the needs of students with language disorders.

Types of Language Disorders

There are several types of language disorders. As an educator, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the different types of language disorders and the difficulties that your students may have. Each student with a language disorder will have different needs and strengths, both as an individual and because of the nature of their disorder.

Phonological Disorders

Phonology is an area of linguistics that focuses on using sound to convey meaning. Phonological disorders usually involve difficulties in producing speech or understanding the spoken word. Symptoms of a phonological disorder include:

  • Less vocalization or less varied use of syllables than other children their age
  • Delayed ability to learn, use, or distinguish syllabic sounds–especially complex sound clusters–and errors in using or distinguishing sounds that linger after a developmentally appropriate age
  • Difficulty in rhyming, distinguishing sounds or syllables that have been left out of a word, or distinguishing syllables from each other

Morphological and Syntax Disorders

Morphology is an area of linguistics that focuses on meaning in context. It includes aspects of language such as intonation and grammar. Syntax is an area of linguistics focusing on how words and phrases are combined and ordered to create meaning in sentences. This disorder cluster usually involves difficulties understanding the verbal inflections that signify shades of meaning. Symptoms of a morphological or syntax disorder include:

  • Word usage or errors that are typical in developmentally younger children than the child in question
  • Omitting words where they would be grammatically appropriate more often than misusing words
  • Difficulty in understanding or using complex sentences, especially sentences with subordinate clauses
  • Difficulty in judging, finding or correcting grammatical errors or ungrammatical sentences or usages
  • Difficulty in identifying or using different parts of speech or variants of familiar words

Semantic Disorders

Semantics is an area of linguistics focusing on the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences. Semantic disorders usually involve difficulty learning and contextualizing the meanings of words. Symptoms of a semantic disorder include:

  • Excessive usage of indefinite or nonspecific terms or references (that, there, things, stuff)
  • Slower retention of vocabulary and new words
  • Particular delays in vocabulary milestones such as verbs, word combinations, or first words
  • Unusual difficulty understanding or using a word in a new context
  • Difficulty in understanding and using synonyms, words with multiple meanings, and figurative languages such as idioms, puns, or metaphors
  • Difficulty in restating information in own words
  • Difficulty in understanding questions posed or the ability to ask questions
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty in drawing inferences from content

Pragmatic language Difficulties

Linguistic Pragmatics refers to systems that combine other language attributes in social and functional ways. Pragmatic language issues include issues students may have in communicating in everyday contexts and using the verbal and nonverbal aspects of language to make themselves understood and to understand the people around them. Pragmatic difficulties students may experience include:

  • Difficulty or unusual patterns in expressing personal feelings, ideas, and experiences
  • Inability to pick up on nonverbal social cues or social cues that are not overtly stated
  • Difficulty in initiating conversations or playing with peers
  • Uncertainty or difficulty in understanding when to talk, how long to talk, appropriate topics for context, an appropriate tone for context, or relevancy of contribution
  • Difficulty in recognizing social or personal boundaries or norms

Approaching Language Disorders in the Classroom

Children with language disorders are likely to have special needs that go beyond the use and acquisition of language. Difficulty in communication can affect a child’s ability to learn within any educational system. The inability to understand or to make oneself understood can lead to social isolation. Students who have language disorders may also have other physical, neurological, or psychological conditions which may prevent them from taking part in social and academic life to its fullest unless they are accommodated properly. Some difficulties students with language disorders may face include:

  • Behavioral issues such as difficulty in regulating attention and activity level (i.e., hyperactivity or attention deficit)
  • Emotional regulation issues such as the inability to self-soothe, difficulty identifying emotional states in self or others, or unusual difficulty controlling or expressing emotional reactions in a healthy way
  • Shyness or anxiety in initiating or engaging in social relationships
  • Low self-esteem or low social self-esteem
  • Bullying or other forms of abuse from others around them

Most children with diagnosed language disorders should have speech therapists or special education professionals working with them and appropriate integration into the larger school environment. Individualized education plans for children with language disorders should focus on strategies that make communication with others easier for the child rather than “normalizing” isolated aspects of the child’s disorder. Special educators should strive to continually assess the child’s progress and needs, setting new goals and adjusting the pace as the child progresses in their ability to communicate. General educators who have children with language disorders in their classrooms must stay in contact with speech therapists or other special education professionals and be aware of how to reinforce educational goals when working with those children.

Some children with language disorders may not be diagnosed immediately; this is particularly common in children who may not have difficulties in formal language areas, such as spelling, grammar, vocabulary, or syntax. Many “twice-exceptional” children excel at the mechanical aspects of language but have difficulty using language to express themselves or engage in fulfilling social relationships. These children may fall through the cracks and suffer, despite academic achievement in other areas.

Many teachers and educators are the first ones to notice that something is wrong, that a child may need more attention than they are getting and more help than they are receiving. Educators need to be aware of the holistic challenges children with language disorders face and the problem behaviors that could lead to a crucial and helpful diagnosis of a developmental language disorder.