What is Specific Language Impairment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Specific language impairment is a disorder which delays language development in children. Children with this disorder talk much later than other children, and they struggle with many basic concepts in language. Specific language disorder can impair a child's ability to understand language, and a child's ability to communicate. It usually manifests in preschool, and can be diagnosed very accurately by a speech language pathologist. Early intervention is key with this condition, as an untreated specific language impairment can lead to serious problems later in life, such as difficulty reading.

Young children often benefit from speech therapy if they have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds and words.
Young children often benefit from speech therapy if they have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds and words.

Children with this condition do not have other disabilities or conditions which could impair language acquisition, such as hearing problems, and they lack other signs of developmental delays, progressing normally in all other aspects of development except for language. This condition is sometimes referred to as a “pure” language impairment to reference this, setting it apart from impairments which may be caused by structural differences in the brain or a learning disability which contributes to language acquisition problems.

Difficulties with phonological awareness are often an early sign of specific language impairment, with the child struggling to understand and formulate speech sounds and having problems seeing how individual phonemes can be connected into words. Children may formulate short, simple sentences, and they have difficulty creating or understanding complex sentences. Another hallmark of this condition is difficulty with verbs and articles. A child with specific language impairment might say “he ride bike” or “she paint house.”

The cause of specific language impairment is not known. There is a strong genetic component, and the condition appears to be more common in boys than in girls. Some researchers have suggested that it may be caused by an auditory processing disorder which makes it difficult to perceive language, and others have suggested that there may be functional differences in the brain of a child with specific language impairment, but that these differences cannot be clearly visualized with current brain imaging methods.

Treatment for specific language impairment is therapy with a speech language pathologist who can help a child acquire language skills. Parents and teachers who identify the signs of a specific language impairment should make sure that the child is taken for evaluation to determine why the child is struggling with language acquisition, and which steps can be taken to address the situation. Low income parents can benefit from government assistance which is designed to provide early intervention for childhood disorders; social workers have more information about such assistance and how to access it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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