What is a Developmental Language Disorder?

By Stephanie Lee Slew

Advanced Speech Pathologist

Language is a skill we all use to tell others our thoughts and feelings and to 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 affects about seven in every 100 children. Children with DLD have language difficulties that persist through middle childhood and beyond. DLD is a lifelong condition and without intervention and support during the school years can effect learning, socialising and even employment.

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
  • 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, and 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 are 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 organising 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.

Why is it called Developmental Language Disorder?

Previously, there have been many names for DLD. This made it challenging 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. Developmental Language Disorder is now the commonly accepted term for a language disorder in the absence of any other differentiating or influencing disorders.

People with diagnoses such as Down Syndrome and autism spectrum disorder can have associated language difficulties however would not be given a diagnosis of DLD.

Why do children have a Developmental Language Disorder?

The answer to this is complicated – and in fact, experts are not 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 how 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 precise 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.

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

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

Please 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 and “What is Developmental Language Disorder?” Speech Pathology Australia Media Release 14 October 2020

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