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What is a language disorder and what Is the brain science behind It?

“Language Disorder” is a term that encompasses many difficulties with spoken and/or written language; but given the broad range of the term it can seem complicated to understand. In this post, we’ll explain and give an overview of how language is organized in the brain.

6.8 million people in the US have some kind of language impairment. Language Disorders can make school, work, and daily communication exceptionally frustrating. Yet, as with many communication disorders, they have nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, many people with Language Disorders are of average or even superior intelligence. Language Disorders can exist devoid of any other condition – you don’t necessarily need to have a specific disease or a certain traumatic event happen to have a language disorder.

How is language organized in the brain? How is language different than speech?

Before going further, we’ll explain how language is organized in our brains and a few key terms about that organization.

  • Expressive vs. Receptive:  language can be divided into two aspects: how we use it (expressive language) and how we understand it (receptive language).
  • Spoken vs. Written: we can divide language in two, this time in terms of how we are using it. We refer to oral or spoken language that we speak or hear, or written language that we write or read.
  • Language Hierarchy:
    • Word-Level: can also be thought of as vocabulary. Can either be accessed for understanding or for expression.
    • Morphology: refers to word-endings that add meaning. Think plurality and verb tenses. Again this exists receptively and expressively.
    • Syntax: refers to the rule-based method of how we put words together to make sentences. This, too, is expressive and receptive.
    • Conversation/Prose: refers to putting sentences together to form more cohesive messages, whether you are speaking or writing. It also can refer to how well you understand conversation or the written word.
  • Speech vs. Language: Speech and language are not the same thing. Speech refers to how we coordinate our mouths and vocal cords to create and modulate speech sounds that come together to form words – speech is how we physically say something. Language is the process of formulating the content of what you are going to say.

What is a Language Disorder?

A language disorder results in some difficulty with either understanding or using language in its spoken or written form. There are several disorders that may fall under this umbrella:

  • Expressive Language Disorder
    Difficulty only with using language expressively (producing language either orally or in written form). In the case of an expressive language disorder, the implication is that this person does not have difficulty understanding language. This disorder may not be associated with any disease or condition, and may simply be something that the person struggles with, devoid of any other difficulties. They may have trouble finding words, creating sentences that follow the rules of syntax and grammar, or they may have trouble organizing their thoughts on a more conversational, big-picture level.
  • Expressive/Receptive Language Disorder
    May arise devoid of any other issues or conditions. Some children and adults simply struggle with language, both expressively and receptively. Generally speaking, if a person has difficulty with receptive language, they will also have difficulty with expressive language. Expressive and receptive language may not be equally affected, however, so one aspect of language in that sense may be stronger than the other.
  • Language-Based Learning Disability
    Refers specifically to difficulty with reading, spelling, and/or writing that is greater than is to be expected for a person’s age. Of course, these skills are difficult for young children first acquiring them. However if these skills are difficult beyond age-expectations, a child may be diagnosed with a language-based learning disability. Again, it should be emphasized that many children with language-based learning disabilities are of average or superior intellect.

    • Dyslexia
      Within this category is a specific reading-based disorder, dyslexia. This refers specifically to difficulty with the written word, and usually results in difficulty with sounding out words, spelling, and recognizing sight words. With the right intervention, most can become good readers and writers.

How are Language Disorders treated?

The good news is that there are a variety of ways that language disorders can be treated. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs), and special education teachers are well-versed in how to help compensate for language disorders and how to improve language skills. Based on specific strengths and weaknesses in terms of where and how language breaks down, treatments and tasks can be assigned that will help to build language skills.

Whether you need to expand your vocabulary, improve your use of syntax, or work on your understanding of conversation, there are things you can do to improve, and mobile apps like Constant Therapy have a variety of science-based tasks and exercises designed to help make that improvement.

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  1. Jennifer Cook

    This is a fantastic article.
    The descriptions are clear and concise. Thank you, from an SLP

    • Carla Gates

      Thanks so much, Jennifer.

    • Nicole weaver

      This is a perfect article. Thankyou from a mother with an autistic child.

  2. Sondra Knight Mims

    You may want to look at this in the blog. I don’t think this is the intention of the sentence. I assume you meant intervention.

    “Keep in mind, with the right children, just about anyone with dyslexia can become a good reader and writer.”

    I also am concerned that parents will seek the assistance of an OT or Special Educator for a “language disorder.” That would be inappropriate. Certainly a Special Educator would work with a child who demonstrates language weaknesses in the classroom but should not “treat” a child for a language disorder.

    • Carla Gates

      Thank you for your comments, Sondra – and you are correct, that was a typo (now corrected).


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