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Suffolk Center for Speech


Language Disorder vs Language Difference

A language disorder is when a child has difficulty either understanding and/or processing language, either receptively or expressively. A language disorder can impact a child’s form, function, or use of language.

A language difference may occur when a child is able to speak another language that is different than the language used for instruction, as well as used for the greater population in the area. If a child has a language difference, it does not indicate that they have a language disorder.

There are many factors to consider when making the decision of whether a bilingual child

presents with a language difference or language disorder. Gillespie (2015) defines a

language difference as “the result of the normal process of second language acquisition, and its

impact on the development of the second language”. Although second language acquisition may manifest as a delay in the second language (i.e., English), children with a language difference have language skills in their native language that are equivalent with typically developing children. For example, a child’s first language (L1) and second language (L2) may be developing at the same time or sequentially and at a different rate of speed or pattern depending on their linguistic environment. On the other hand, a language disorder is “characterized by deficits in language comprehension and/or production in both the native language and the second language” (Gillespie, 2015). Children with a language disorder struggle to communicate in both L1 and L2. It is important to differentiate children with a language disorder from children with a language difference. While some children may present with limited English language abilities (i.e., English language learners) and concerns arise related to skills in the language used in the classroom (e.g., L2 – English), this does not necessarily mean that a child has a language disorder. Many children have language systems that are appropriate in their native language as they are learning English as a second language.

Gillespie, T. (2015). Language differences versus language disorder. Retrieved on December 10, 2015 from: http://teresagillespie.wikispaces.dpsk12.org/Language+Difference+versus+Language+Disorder.

– Mara H.

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