Primary Language Disorder and Terminology

This week I thought I might touch briefly on the issue of terminology used about the disability we refer to as Primary Language Disorder.  This is a key issue in maintaining consistent messages to politicians and the community, and in researching the disability, whether it be on Google or in professional research journals.  What the disability is called and how it is defined also impacts on our ability to interpret what strategies have been proven to work with our children and young people, and therefore what is worth our time and money in terms of investment.

Let’s get it straight from the start, experts in the field of speech and language difficulties in children have not settled on an agreed term for talking about these difficulties, so there are a myriad of different terms used to describe the same condition or maybe slightly different variations.

I thought it might be helpful for our parents, staff and broader audience to get a sense of this challenge by listing some of the terms used below and their context:

Developmental dysphasia/aphasia – Historical term to describe clinically significantly language difficulties of unknown origin

Specific developmental language disorder  – Replacing labels above, both terms usually referring Specific language impairment  (SLI) to the same children

Language difficulties/problems/delay – Can refer to children who are ‘late bloomers’ but also children with language disorders

Language impairment (LI) –  A preferred term to SLI due to poor empirical support for the notion that IQ is not impacted in SLI

Expressive Language Disorder -  Terms used in the diagnostic manual utilised Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder by the medical profession

Communication disorder –  Encompassing speech and language as well as nonlinguistic ways of conveying meaning (eg facial expression)

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) –  To describe children who fail to acquire their native language at the typical rate for no obvious reason

Speech Language Impairment -  A disability funding category defined by the  Department of Education and Training, Qld.

Primary Language Disorder - Also used to describe children who fail to acquire their native language at the typical rate for no obvious reason, replacing the word specific with   primary in recognition of the fact that many children with language disorders are likely to have difficulties   outside the language system.

There are many other labels for specific  subtypes of language impairment as well as a variety of speech sound disorders, some related to language and some not.  Knowing our terminology allows us to be confident that we are all talking about the same group of children who are often overlooked by our systems and communities.

If we all understand the terminology issues, we can get beyond the label and see each child as the individual they are, with their different needs for programming and support.


Vikki Rose Graydon – Executive Principal CHI.L.D. Association

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