What is a Language Disorder?

Language is a system of rules (grammar, syntax, etc) used by a group of people to convey meaning. Language can be spoken, written, or shown (gestures, sign language). You CAN have language without speech.

A language disorder is a breakdown in the ability to express language, understand language, or follow social norms.

A language disorder can be classified as a disorder of expressive language, receptive language, pragmatics, or a mixture of any of these.


Expressive Language

Expressive Language is the ideas and thoughts you put out in to the world. It is your ability to express your wants and needs to others –combining words or gestures to share thoughts.

A person with an Expressive Language Disorder may appear to have below-average vocabulary skills (often using words like ‘stuff’, or repeating what others have said). They may also have difficulty forming sentences (syntax), and may be considered quieter due to their lack of expression.


Receptive Language

Receptive Language is what we understand. When someone is speaking to us, are we able to listen to what they have said and make sense of it? Or if the person is using gestures, sign language, or writing, can we see this and understand it?

A typically developing child understands language before they are able to express themselves. As babies, they can listen to what you are saying and follow along with routines and directions because of receptive language skills.

A person with a Receptive Language Disorder will have difficulty understanding language (what people say to them, show them, or what they read). They may not follow directions very well, they may not understand a story that is read to them, and they may also have trouble understanding what is being asked of them (confusing ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘how’).



Pragmatics (also referred to as social communication) is the manner in which we use language. According to the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), there are 3 major skills involved in pragmatics- using language, changing language, and following rules.

Using language 

  • Greeting (saying “hello”)
  • Informing (“I like the color blue”)
  • Demanding (“Give me that toy!)
  • Requesting (“May I have that candy please?”)

Changing language 

  • Talking differently to a child than to an adult.
  • Giving background information to someone who is new to a subject vs. skipping certain details when someone already knows the subject.
  • Talking differently to your friends/family than to a new acquaintance.

Following Rules

  • Appropriately initiating and ending conversations.
  • Maintaining a conversation
  • Taking turns when you talk.
  • Using gestures and body language, like pointing or shrugging.
  • Knowing how close to stand to someone when talking.
  • Using appropriate eye contact.

Someone with a Pragmatic Language Disorder may have trouble with any of these skills stated above. They may seem ‘socially awkward’ or out-of-place. The child may tell stories that don’t make sense or may even limit their communication from others to avoid these situations all together.


A Language Disorder is not to be confused with a Language Delay. A Language Delay is when you follow the same patterns of language rules that all your peers do, but at a slower rate. A speech language pathologist’s job in this situation would be to help you catch up to your same aged peers (or to the expected ‘norms’ for any given age).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *