Language Development

In communication, language describes a child’s ability to process and make meaning from words and other communication in their lives. Speech concerns itself with the production of words, but language refers to the actual processing and generation of messages around us.

Language, its understanding and its use can be described as follows:


Morphology is the system of word-forming elements and processes in a language. It refers to units of meaning (morphemes). This describes how to form new words or categories from existing words, e.g., ‘love’, ’loved’, ’lovingly’.


Semantics is the content and meaning of language, e.g., ‘bright’ can refer to illuminating light or talented and smart person.


Syntax is the order and combination of words to form sentences, and the relationships among the elements within a sentence e.g., ‘I like this new outfit’ rather than ‘I like new outfit this’.


Pragmatics is the function of language, including social aspects like turn taking, eye contact, distance etc. It is choosing the right word combinations for the given situation, e.g. ‘Is anyone sitting here?’ or ‘Would you mind if I sit here?’ when asking permission to sit on an empty seat in a restaurant can be changed to ‘May I sit here, please?’ if the first two requests do not produce the desired result.

Expressive Language

Expressive language difficulties are characterized by the child having problem in expressing him/herself using language. The child understands language better than he or she is able to communicate. The problem can be acquired (such as in the case of brain trauma) or developmental, which is more commonly seen in children. Children with expressive language problems often do not talk much or often, although they generally understand language addressed to them. For example, a 2-year-old may be able to follow 2-step commands, but he/she cannot name body parts.

A 4-year-old may understand stories read to him/her, but he/she may not be able to describe the story even in a simple narrative. Imaginative play and social uses of language (i.e. manners, conversation) may also be impaired by expressive language limitations, causing difficulty in playing with peers.

These are children who may have a lot to say, but are unable to retrieve the words they need. Some children may have no problem in simple expression, but have difficulties retrieving and organizing words and sentences when expressing more complicated thoughts and ideas. This may occur when they are trying to describe, define, or explain information or retell an event or activity.

Receptive Language

Children with receptive language problem have difficulties in understanding spoken, and sometimes written, language. The following checklist may help you to get an idea if your child has a receptive language problem:

  1. Difficulty understanding and following directions or instructions.
  2. Becomes overwhelmed when given 2 or multi step directions.
  3. Often doesn’t understand longer more complex sentences, thus becomes confused easily.
  4. Struggles with figurative versus literal language and will usually need explanations.
  5. Regularly requires clarification and to have the instructions/directions repeated. Often uses the term ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I forget’.

The child may be able to read but when questioned about the passage just read, he/she has limited understanding.