Speech and Language Delay/Disorder, what are them?


About 10% of preschool children have more or less severe difficulties with their communication. One of the possible causes of a communication difficulty is a speech or language delay or disorder. But what is that?

In this article we will look at some characteristics of speech/language difficulties and how to recognize them in our children.

Speech delay or disorder – commonly called impairment (or Specific Language Impairment – SLI) manifests with difficulties in language understanding and/or use in the absence of other cognitive or physiological causes (such as an autism spectrum disorder, deafness or an anatomical problem with tongue or palate).

In this impairment, the two components of communication can be affected: “speech”, that is, the ability to distinguish and articulate certain sounds to form words; and “language”, that is, the ability to understand and produce words and sentences.

A difficulty with “speech” could be the substitution of /R/ with /W/ (gliding); the simplification of clusters (for example saying “Tairs” instead of “STairs”) or the substitution of some sounds with simpler sounds (“Tat” instead of “Cat” or “doD” instead of “doG“).

These difficulties are typical while acquiring language, i.e. before the age of 3-4, but can become a problem when they persist in an older child.

A difficulty with “language” could manifest itself in the child having difficulty understanding simple instructions, a limited vocabulary or a jumbled grammar construction (for example saying “Outside me go playing” instead of “I’m going to play outside”).

Similar to the difficulty in speech, such mistakes are typical of younger children, but can be considered a red flag for children older than 4-5 years.


What types of Language are usually affected?

Language is divided into two sub-categories: receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive language (or understanding) is the ability to understand what is being said. This ability is influenced by cognitive skills such as attention, memory and auditory processing.

Expressive language (or use) is the ability to express one’s thoughts, needs and interests.

To allow expressive language to develop, strong receptive language is needed. Every child first develops receptive language, and it is only when they are able to understand a concept that they will be able to express it.


How can I recognize a language difficulty?

A child’s language development has different stages, which occur at roughly the same time for all children. Some children may be slightly delayed in these stages but over time recover without further problems (the so-called “late bloomers”).

Other children may carry this delay over the years, which would affect other skills, such as reading and writing.

Here are some red flags for various ages:

  • – 5/10 months, the child does not “play with sounds”, that is, does not produce babbling (for example “Ma-ma-ma” or “Ba-ba-ba”)
  • – 9-14 months, the child does not use gestures such as pointing, showing, waving bye, calling etc.
  • – 18 months, the child does not use any words or uses less than 10 words
  • – 24 months, the child uses less than 50 words and does not yet combine two words to form sentences.

However, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish a late bloomer from a child with language impairment. My advice is to use games and approaches to support language development anyway, as support is beneficial in both cases.

If you are concerned about your child’s language development, or have recognized any red flags in this article and would like to know more, you can use this language self-assessment quiz.