Common Speech and Language Disorders

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 10, 2022
4 min read

Speech and language problems may make it hard for your child to understand and speak with others, or make the sounds of speech. They're common, affecting as many as one in 12 kids and teens in the U.S.

Kids with these disorders often have trouble when they learn to read and write, or when they try to be social and make friends. But treatment helps most children improve, especially if they start it early.

Adults can also have these disorders. It may have started in childhood, or they may have them because of other problems such as brain injuries, stroke, cancer, or dementia.

For children with speech disorders, it can be tough forming the sounds that make up speech or putting sentences together. Signs of a speech disorder include:

  • Trouble with p, b, m, h, and w sounds at 1 to 2 years of age
  • Problems with k, g, f, t, d, and n sounds between the ages of 2 and 3
  • When people who know the child well find it hard to understand them

The causes of most speech disorders are unknown.

There are three major types:

Articulation: It’s hard for your child to pronounce words. They may drop sounds or use the wrong sounds and say things like “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.” Letters such as p, b, and m are easier to learn. Most kids can master those sounds by age 2. But r, l, and th sounds take longer to get right.

Fluency: Your child may have problems with how their words and sentences flow. Stuttering is a fluency disorder. That’s when your child repeats words, parts of words, or uses odd pauses. It’s common as kids approach 3 years of age. That’s when a child thinks faster than they can speak. If it lasts longer than 6 months, or if your child is more than 3.5 years old, get help.

Voice: If your child speaks too loudly, too softly, or is often hoarse, they may have a voice disorder. This can happen if your child speaks loudly and with too much force. Another cause is small growths on the vocal cords called nodules or polyps. They’re also due to too much voice stress.

Does your child use fewer words and simpler sentences than their friends? These issues may be signs of a language disorder. For kids with this disorder, it’s hard to find the right words or speak in complete sentences. It may be tough for them to make sense of what others say. Your child may have this disorder if they:

  • Don’t babble by 7 months
  • Only speak a few words by 17 months
  • Can’t put two words together by 2 years
  • Have problems when they play and talk with other kids from the ages of 2 to 3

There are two major types of language disorders. It’s possible for a child to have both.

Receptive: This is when your child finds it hard to understand speech. They may find it hard to:

  • Follow directions
  • Answer questions
  • Point to objects when asked

Expressive: If your child has trouble finding the right words to express themselves, they may have this type of language disorder. Kids with an expressive disorder may find it tough to:

  • Ask questions
  • String words into sentences
  • Start and continue a conversation

It’s not always possible to trace the cause of language disorders. Physical causes of this type of disorder can include head injuries, illness, or ear infections. These are sometimes called acquired language disorders.

Other things that make it more likely include:

  • A family history of language problems
  • Being born early
  • Autism
  • Down syndrome
  • Poor nutrition

Doctors don’t always know what causes your child’s condition. Remember, these kinds of disorders have nothing to do with how smart your child is. Often, kids with language disorders are smarter than average.

Speech and language disorders are legally defined disabilities. Your child may get testing and treatment through your state’s early intervention program or local public schools. Some services are free.

Your child may see a speech language pathologist, or SLP. The SLP may try to find out if your child:

  • Can follow directions
  • Is able to name common objects
  • Knows how to play with toys
  • Can hold books the right way

The SLP will first check your child’s hearing. If that’s OK, the SLP will do tests to find out what kind of disorder may be present, if it’s a short-term problem or one that needs treatment, and what treatment plan to recommend.

Children learn and grow at their own pace. The younger they are, the more likely they are to make mistakes. So you’ll want to learn the milestones. Know what skills your child should be able to master at a given age.

To help your child with their speech and language skills:

  • Talk to your child, even as a newborn.
  • Point to objects and name them.
  • When your child is ready, ask them questions.
  • Respond to what they say, but don’t correct mistakes.
  • Read to your child at least 15 minutes a day.

If your child has one of these disorders, don’t assume they’ll outgrow it. But treatment does help most kids get better. The sooner they get it, the better the results.