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September 4, 2011 / the speech monster

Language impairments 101

This post is for parents or educators who want to understand the basics of what language impairments are, and what the difference is between language delays and disorders.

Language Delay:

Starting with the easier terminology to define: a language delay essentially refers to a student who is slow in developing his/her language. A lot of these children were probably slightly delayed in talking as a toddler, or who started babbling and cooing and using one or two word utterances at a normal rate, but plateaued after awhile, probably because of one or a range of different reasons (for example, a history of ear infections, experiencing trauma, fighting off illness, lack of language stimulation because of external circumstances, etc…). With a language delay, the child is still developing language developmentally, just slower.

The American Speech and Hearing Association’s website provides the public with some useful guidelines about what to expect at different years of a child’s life, from birth to grade 5. Click here for birth to 5 years old; click here for kindergarten to grade 5. Note that these are based on research done on monolingual, English speaking children.

Most people believe that a child with a language delay will eventually catch up with their peers if given the correct support and intervention. If you believe that your child has a speech and/or language delay, seek help from your doctor or ring up a speech and language pathologist to make inquiries. Do more research as well about your child’s presentations and relay them to the professionals. It is important that your child receives intervention as early as possible, if he/she needs it.

However, I have heard from many parents of kids I see at primary/elementary school, whose kids are still quite delayed in their language (and/or speech), who knew their child had a delay early on but did not pursue the matter further then because their General Practitioner or even (gasp) Pediatrician said that they would “grow out of it” and start speaking “naturally.” This is alarming because a lot of parents rely on doctors for direction…and the more time these children “waste” not receiving the proper help, the more difficult it could be to play catch up when they grow older.

Language Disorder:

A language disorder refers to the development of language in a non-sequential manner, and may occur as a characteristic of another developmental disorder such as autism or down syndrome. The child with a language disorder may speak in disjointed sentences, have difficulties with word order, sequences, and acquiring new vocabulary. He/she may have difficulties with receptive language (understanding) and/or expressive language (speaking), and will need specific language intervention and may encounter a life-long struggle with language. In this case, compensatory strategies will also be targeted in therapy to give the child functional skills for the real world. Another type of difficulty that has been on the rise in the last few years, has been pragmatic difficulties (social language) which a lot of children with autism and language difficulties struggle with.

Both language delays and disorders are diagnosed by a Speech-Language Pathologist. Some assessments may require the input of an Educational Psychologist to make a more informed and accurate diagnosis. However, bear in mind, that regardless of whether or not your child presents with a split in his/her cognitive profile (i.e., scores really low on the verbal component but high on a non-verbal subtest) if he/she scores low enough on a language assessment, he/she should get the necessary help from a Speech-Language Pathologist.

In Victoria Australia, many public education teachers and parents whose kids attend public schools, may be confused with the language impairment criteria. As of 2011, in Victorian schools, in order to qualify for additional funding from the government for extra services under the category of “Severe Language Disorder,” the child has to score at least 3 standard deviations below the mean on two formal language assessments, and show critical education needs. However, if the child does NOT score THAT poorly on a formal language assessment, but still has scores at least 2 standard deviations (s.d.) below the mean (regardless of whether it’s a delay OR disorder), that is more than enough evidence to show that the child is in dire need of some kind of extra support. To give parents and educators an idea of how severe that is, the bell curve below shows you where a child who is 2 s.d. below the mean is in relation to the average population.

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