What Is Language Impairment? Understanding Communication Challenges

Language impairment is a condition that affects an individual’s ability to communicate or understand language. This condition can affect children, adolescents, and adults. Language impairment can manifest in several ways, including struggling to express their thoughts, difficulty understanding spoken or written language, or challenges using appropriate grammar and vocabulary.

Language impairment is a complex condition that can have several underlying causes, including neurological disorders, developmental delays, and brain injuries. These conditions can affect different aspects of language communication, including syntax, semantics, and phonology.

The Types of Language Impairment

Language impairment affects individuals differently, and it can present itself in various ways. There are three primary types of language impairment:

Expressive Language Impairment

Expressive language impairment (ELI) is a type of language disorder that affects an individual’s ability to express themselves using words, phrases, and complete sentences. Individuals with ELI often face difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings clearly using spoken or written language. They may use short sentences or struggle to find the right words to express their ideas.

Receptive Language Impairment

Receptive language impairment (RLI) is a condition that affects an individual’s ability to understand spoken or written language. Individuals with RLI may have difficulty following instructions or comprehending what others are saying to them. They may also find it challenging to read, understand, or remember written texts.

Mixed Language Impairment

Mixed language impairment is a condition that presents both expressive and receptive language impairments. It can be challenging for individuals with mixed language impairment to both process and express language communication.

The Causes of Language Impairment

The causes of language impairment can vary depending on the individual. There are several underlying conditions that can contribute to the development of language impairment, including:

  • Neurological disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy.
  • Developmental delays, such as those that may be caused by premature birth.
  • Brain injuries that affect language centers of the brain.
  • Hearing loss

Developmental Factors

The developmental factors of language impairment are typically diagnosed when a child fails to reach specific speech and language milestones. For example, failing to babble by six months or not speaking single words by 12 to 15 months. These developmental delays may lead to subsequent long-term language impairments.

Biological Factors

Biological factors affecting language impairment include genetic factors, traumatic brain injuries, and specific medical conditions. Genetic factors are a significant cause in instances of language impairment, and the condition may run in families. Traumatic brain injuries can cause temporary or permanent language impairment, depending on the severity of the injury.

Symptoms of Language Impairment

The symptoms of language impairment can vary depending on the type and severity of the condition. Some common symptoms of language impairment include:

  • Difficulty finding the right words to express an idea
  • Struggling to put words together to form complete sentences
  • Difficulty understanding spoken or written language
  • Poor pronunciation or enunciation
  • Social difficulties, such as having difficulty making friends or interacting in groups


Children with language impairment during preschool years often have a limited vocabulary or use incomplete sentences. They may have difficulty conveying their wants and needs effectively. They may also struggle to follow directions, which can cause frustration in both the child and the adult trying to communicate with them.

School-Age Children

School-age children with language impairment often struggle with more complex language and grammar challenges. They may have difficulty with reading and writing at age-level standards. These challenges can impact their academic performance and interpersonal relationships.

Adolescents and Adults

Language impairments in adolescents and adults can impact social interactions and employment. Adults with language impairments may struggle with communication in the workplace, which can affect productivity and career advancement.

Language Impairment Diagnosis and Treatment

If you suspect that you or a loved one may have a language impairment, it’s essential to seek professional guidance to receive a proper diagnosis. A Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), typically diagnoses language impairments. Treatment may include speech therapy, cognitive therapies, or behavioral therapies depending on the underlying cause of the language impairment.

Speech Therapy

Speech therapy may help individuals with expressive language impairments to improve their ability to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively. Speech therapy may include teaching the individual the foundational elements of a sentence structure or improving their vocabulary through exercises or conversation.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) can help individuals with language impairments to develop coping mechanisms or problem-solving skills. CBT can teach individuals how to recognize social cues and improve their self-esteem and motivation.


Medication may help children with ADHD-related symptoms, which may exacerbate the symptoms of expressive language disorders. Children diagnosed with ADHD and language impairments may benefit from stimulant medication, reducing hyperactivity, and improving concentration levels.

Assistive Technology and Language Impairment

Assistive technology is increasingly becoming available for individuals with language impairments. These devices can improve communication challenges and help individuals to express themselves effectively. Typical assistive technology for language impairments includes:

  • Picture Communication Symbols
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices
  • Speech Generating Devices
  • Visual Support Materials

New technology has revolutionized the ability for individuals with language impairments to communicate with others effectively. These advances have increased the ability of individuals to access educational and vocational opportunities that may have otherwise been unavailable.

Coping with Language Impairment

Language impairment can be challenging for individuals that have the condition and the loved ones that support them. However, coping can be manageable by:

  • Encouraging clear and concise communication
  • Praise effort and encourage positive behaviours
  • Develop a routine that supports their abilities
  • Learn and teach to use assistive communication devices


Language impairment can impact an individual’s ability to communicate with others and may have consequences for social, emotional, and academic growth. Understanding the condition may help individuals and their loved ones to identify the symptoms early and seek the appropriate intervention to support their needs.

Common Questions and Answers about Language Impairment

  • Q: What are the symptoms of language impairment?
  • A: Some common symptoms of language impairment include difficulty finding the right words to express an idea, struggling to put words together to form complete sentences, difficulty understanding spoken or written language, poor pronunciation or enunciation, and social difficulties.
  • Q: How is language impairment diagnosed?
  • A: Language impairment is usually diagnosed by a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) through evaluations, including assessments of vocabulary, sentence structure, and receptive and expressive language development.
  • Q: What can cause language impairment?
  • A: Language impairment can be caused by neurological disorders like autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, brain injuries, hearing loss, or Down syndrome. Genetic factors may also contribute.
  • Q: Can language impairment be cured?
  • A: There is no cure for language impairment, but treatment like speech therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy, and medication can help individuals manage symptoms, improve communication, and lead a healthy and productive life.


1. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2021). Language Impairment. www.asha.org/
2. Bishop, D. V. (2014). Why is it so hard to reach agreement on terminology related to developmental language disorders? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45(4),
3. Eadie, P. A., Morgan, A. T., & Ukoumunne, O. C. (2015). Prevalence of language delay in 2-year-old children: a secondary analysis of the Growing Up in Australia Study. BMJ Open, 5(11), e008383.

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