Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

September 11, 2023

Language Disorders vs. Differences

By: Gabby Howard, MA, CF-SLP

As speech-language pathologists (SLP), a large part of our role is to understand the unique process of communication. Communication is a complex exchange that involves receiving information, comprehending it, formulating language, and producing speech via various modes (i.e., verbal speech, sign language, AAC, etc.). Breakdowns in communication occur all the time and for several reasons. It could be a simple miscommunication, or due to an underlying language disorder or difference.

What is a language disorder? According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), a language disorder is impaired comprehension and/or use of spoken language in one or more of the five domains of language:

  1. Phonology: the sound system of a language and the rules that govern its sound combinations
  2. Morphology: the structure of words and word forms
  3. Syntax: the rules of word order and word combinations
  4. Semantics: the rules of word meaning
  5. Pragmatics: how the above language rules are used in functional and social communication.

Children with language disorders may have difficulty with:

  • Vocabulary and using a variety of words
  • Understanding grammatical forms (i.e., verb tenses, noun forms, pronouns)
  • Following directions
  • Understanding concepts (i.e., spatial, categorical, sequential)
  • Understanding and using “wh-“ questions
  • Staying on topic in conversation with others
  • Understanding figurative language

A language difference, on the other hand, can be the use of a regional, social, or cultural/ethnic dialect of the same language, or the use of a different language. It is important to emphasize that difference DOES NOT equal disorder. Children with language differences meet the standards of language comprehension and use within their primary speech and language community, but not the Standard English community.

Children with language differences may:

  • Speak or be exposed to a language other than English
  • Have no difficulty communicating with other members of their language or cultural group
  • Understand the social and societal expectations of their community
  • Use different grammar and pronunciation patterns that correspond with their primary language
  • Have a different vocabulary

Knowing and understanding the implications behind language differences and disorders helps SLPs provide knowledgeable recommendations and services to children and families that need them. Contact an SLP if you have concerns within the areas of language mentioned above.


American English Dialects. (2003). American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1993). Definitions of Communication Disorders and Variations. Definitions of Communication Disorders and Variations.