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Developmental Language Disorder
ICD 315.32

Article by:
Sarah Morales, BS
Children's Speech Care Center

Developmental language disorder (sometimes called language delay) is a condition wherein a child does not learn language as quickly as his/her peers. For example, a 5-year-old child may speak and understand language like a 3 year old. These children may have normal intelligence, or they may have a condition involving mental retardation, which cause a language delay. Developmental language disorders in the absence of mental retardation or any other impairment may be hereditary, or genetic. Recent neuroimaging (brain imaging—i.e. MRI) studies have identified differences in the shapes of brains of persons with such developmental language disorders. Further, developmental language disorders could be a result of hearing loss, which may be permanent (i.e. congenital—present at birth, genetic) or transient (i.e. due to middle ear infection—see section on otitis media).

Children with developmental language disorders learn language in the same sequence as their normally developing peers, but the pace is delayed. For example, typically developing children produce first words between the ages of 10-12 months, increasing the number of single words produced by 12-18 months, speaking in two-word phrases between the ages of 18-24 months, and using 2-3 word phrases in the second year of life. They use 3-4 word “adult-like” sentences in their third year of life. By the age of 5, normally developing children have learned 90% of the grammar they will need in life. Children with more moderate or severe language disorders show delays in these early milestones as well as delays in learning language in school (i.e. learning vocabulary words, spelling, reading, writing). These children may recover with or without treatment to “catch up” with their peers; however, depending on the severity, speech/language therapy is usually advisable. Early intervention is frequently a key to successful remediation before the school-age years. If difficulties persist into the elementary school years, this disorder is called a language learning disability.

Children with milder, more “hidden” language disorders may not show signs of difficulty until they begin elementary school (i.e. in learning to read and write). Further, children’s difficulties may appear to be resolved with treatment in early grade school (i.e. kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2), but resurface later. In the later elementary years (e.g., grade 3, 4, 5), “learning to read” in school has more firmly transitioned into “reading to learn,” and writing assignments become more demanding (i.e. longer, more diverse in topics). Language skills progress from more basic to more complex. The demands for high order language increase across the years. This is the language that, for example, is needed to perform tasks involving such skills as interpretation and reasoning. In middle or high school, speaking, listening, reading and writing are integral parts of education, and more abstract thinking is required. Some students do not become identified as language impaired until middle or high school.

Social interaction with peers may be difficult for children with language delays or disorders. For example, they may have difficulty contributing relevant statements in conversation, understanding/making jokes, following the pace of conversation, etc. Poor achievement in school may further isolate these children from their peers (i.e. teasing, exclusion from social/academic groups, etc.). Children with language delays may express frustration by acting out (i.e. becoming a bully, class clown, etc.).

Older children with language difficulties (late elementary school, middle school, high school) are less likely to have automatic (effortless) speech/language and reading and writing skills. For example, they may sound out words to spell them instead of trying to memorize spellings, learn root words, or learn prefixes and suffixes. These older children may be unable to follow lengthy stories or textbook passages or compose written reports or essays appropriate to age level. Also, if earlier difficulties have gone unnoticed or untreated, it is likely that these older children will be frustrated with learning and express animosity regarding school (i.e. acting out, skipping school, etc.). These emotions coupled with difficulties using/understanding language may make social interaction with peers, a highly valued part of adolescent life, even more difficult.

Developmental language disorders (vs. a delay which resolves with or without treatment) never “go away”, and they will always be a part of a person’s life. These disorders can best be diagnosed and treated by a speech-language pathologist. In most cases, the continued efforts of a speech-language pathologist in working with a child’s family and classroom teachers are necessary. However, a great deal of research has been conducted with persons with these disabilities, and speech-language pathologists have found effective ways to help these students develop strategies that are effective in facilitating learning and independence in learning. Parents and classroom teachers are in key positions to help the speech-language pathologist evaluate and treat the child.

Several informative links include the following:


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