Language Disorder or Language Difference?

Written by Nirali Talati

Certified Practicing Speech Pathologist
B.Sc, B.Sp.Path, C.P.S.P

There is a common myth that says teaching a child more than one language will cause them to have a language disorder or that it might exacerbate existing language difficulties.

Luckily, many years of research have confirmed that this is not the case (De Houwer 1999).

In fact, there are often many benefits to children speaking more than one language.

Understand the Difference Between a Diagnosed Language Disorder and Language Difference

A language disorder is when a child has difficulty understanding language (comprehension) and/or using language to communicate and learn in his or her everyday life (Nayeb, Lagerberg,

Sarkadi, Salameh & Eriksson 2021).

This may be diagnosed by a speech pathologist as a Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). DLD is a neurodevelopmental condition and not related to other conditions such as hearing loss or articulation errors.

DLD is present in every language that the child speaks, not just one language.

Language difference is when a child speaks and understands one language better than another.

The child’s skills depend on when the languages were introduced and how often the child is exposed to those languages.

A language difference

A language difference might be noticed in the child’s sentence structure, grammar, speech sound production, vocabulary, and language used to socialise (Kk Nair, Clark, Siyambalapitiya & Reuterskiöld 2023).

For example, if a child is introduced to Spanish in their early years of life and only introduced to English once they start Kinder, they may understand and speak Spanish better than English.

If you are from a bilingual or multilingual family, you might have wondered whether you should teach your child your native language or only English.

Research shows that language development in typically developing children occurs at similar pace as monolingual children, in both their languages.

There is no evidence to suggest that children who speak more than one language have higher or lower rate of language disorder.

But what about children who have been diagnosed with DLD or other conditions, such as autism, that affect their language acquisition skills?

Children with developmental conditions are often slower to pick up language skills across all languages, however this does not mean that you should reduce the number of languages spoken with your child.

There is no evidence to suggest that speaking more than one language negatively affects overall language development, even for children with DLD.

In fact, speech therapy in one language may even lead to improvements in the child’s second language (cross-language transfer) (Kk Nair, Clark, Siyambalapitiya & Reuterskiöld 2023).

If you have concerns about your child’s understanding of instructions or ability to put words and sentences together in your native language, the best thing to do is to contact a speech pathologist for a language assessment.

The good news is that you don’t need a referral to see a speech pathologist, you can directly call the clinic!

De Houwer, Annick. (1999). Two or More Languages in Early Childhood: Some General Points and Practical Recommendations.
Nayeb, L., Lagerberg, D., Sarkadi, A., Salameh, E. K., & Eriksson, M. (2021). Identifying language disorder in bilingual children aged 2.5 years requires screening in both languages. Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992), 110(1), 265–272.
Kk Nair, V., Clark, G. T., Siyambalapitiya, S., & Reuterskiöld, C. (2023). Language intervention in bilingual children with developmental language disorder: A systematic review. International journal of language & communication disorders, 58(2), 576–600.

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