What is a Developmental Language Disorder?

Language is a skill we all use to tell others our thoughts and feelings and understand the world around us. Unfortunately, using and understanding language does not come easy for everyone, particularly, people with a developmental language disorder (DLD).

Developmental Language Disorder cannot be seen but is a very common disorder that affects about 1 in 15 children. Children with DLD have language skills that are behind their same age peers, meaning they cannot use and understand language at the same level that their peers can.

Most of us use language every single day for a whole range of tasks, such as sharing our ideas and feelings as well as understanding the ideas and feelings of others, often without even thinking about it. For those with a DLD, their difficulty in using and understanding language affects many of the tasks we all use language for. This includes socialising with peers, talking about how they are feeling and learning at school.

DLD is a life-long condition, and although usually identified in childhood, does not usually go away and persists through to adulthood. This means there are also many adults with DLD.

What are the features of a Developmental Language Disorder?

Some features of Developmental Language Disorder include the following difficulties persisting past the developmentally appropriate age:

Using incorrect grammar.
For example, saying ‘falled over’ instead of ‘fell over’

Difficulties using correct speech sounds.
For example, saying ‘nana’ for ‘banana’ and ‘wed’ for ‘red’

Using fewer words than same-age peers.
The number of words we use and understand is called our vocabulary. Difficulties with vocabulary look different as we grow up. For example, young children may say their first words later than expected, it may also take children longer to learn and remember new words. Difficulties with remembering words and being able to access them to use them in conversation is called word-finding difficulties.

Difficulties with using language socially.
This could look like difficulty staying on topic, taking turns in conversation or understanding longer sentences in conversation.

Children with DLD may also have problems with sharing information and telling stories. As children with DLD may have difficulty using words to express how they are feeling, they may act in unexpected ways to express these feelings.

therapist working with boy

Why is it called Developmental Language Disorder?

Previously, there have been many names for DLD, however, this made it difficult to research and discuss across different professions. In 2015 and 2016, a group of experts at the Catalise Consortium and Catalise Consortium – 2, decided that the term ‘language disorder’ should be used by all professionals to describe severe language difficulties that will most likely not go away.

The language difficulties associated with DLD make it very hard for children communicate clearly, understand communication and succeed at school both socially and academically.

Language disorders are often associated with other disabilities such as Down Syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, however, some children have a language disorder without having another disability.

Why do children have a Developmental Language Disorder?

The answer to this is complicated – and in fact, experts aren’t quite yet sure. The research indicates that some of the factors that may contribute to DLD are:

DLD often runs in families. This means the genes a child gets from either parent may influence whether a child has DLD. How a child’s brain works, including how different parts of the brain interact or talk to each other can contribute to DLD.

Cognition refers to the ways in which we learn new information, think about and use information. These processes are different for every child. For example, children will have different processing speeds and different memory capacities. The differences may contribute to DLD.

All children grow up in different environments, and it is thought environmental differences (e.g. low socio-economic background) may play a part in DLD. The presence of DLD is not related to the idea that parents did not talk to their child enough – this is a myth.

There is no clear formula for DLD, however, it is thought the interaction between all these factors may contribute to the presence of DLD.


A Speech Pathologist can help!

As DLD can present differently in different children, Speech Pathologists can work with a child’s family and teachers to help diagnose DLD and provide support to develop language skills.

Whilst research shows that children with DLD often don’t develop language skills to the same level as their peers, intervention has been shown to ensure the gap between a child and their peer’s language skills doesn’t continue to widen.

Intervention is important to maximise a child’s communication and learning abilities.

Find out more about our Speech Pathology services.


Adapted from “Developmental Language Disorder: The Childhood Condition We Need to Start Talking About” Alyssa Kuiack and Lisa Archibald.