Monday myth: A child who can speak can’t have language problems

Monday myth: A child who can speak can’t have language problems

Nope. A child with no apparent difficulties speaking can still have difficulties with language.

There are two general components to language: expression and understanding (please see the Education tab above for a more detailed explanation of speech vs. language). Of course, the way we express ourselves is visible to others, and we can do this in a number of ways (speech, writing, sign, gesture, body language, etc.). Language understanding is equally important to a person’s communication skills. It is also a good predictor for the success of therapy in children. It just isn’t as visible, making it tricky knowing the level of a person’s language understanding.

In my practice, especially with children in middle to high school, I have come across many instances where a child can maintain a casual conversation with few problems. The child uses simple, yet appropriate, vocabulary and word grammar, and can put sentences together that make sense for that conversation. Even then, however, the child’s expressions may not be as complex as those of most children of the same age. Problems in behaviour or school performance are often attributed to causes other than language, because the child has – for years! – flown “under the radar” of parents and teachers. Often, when I test for both language understanding and expression at “deeper” levels, the real causes of the child’s behaviour or school performance are very clear.

I have used the following example to describe to parents how the “cloak of competence” can apply to anyone. Assuming you are not a physicist, you attend a one-day conference on quantum physics. At dinner that night, there’s a good chance that you can hold up a conversation about some very fundamental principles. You may be able to work your way around some of the tougher concepts, as well. However, if a physicist tries to engage you about formulae or about competing theories, you would probably fall apart and show how truly little you understand of quantum physics.

To a very large degree, we function in our environments through oral language. Classrooms depend on oral language to teach material to students or to give instructions. When information is beyond a person’s capacity to understand and retain, the person cannot do what is expected. Behaviours that look like inattention or disobedience emerge and lead teachers and parents down the wrong path to solving the problem…basically because they have the wrong problem in mind.

When thinking about a child’s behaviour or school performance, part of a complete evaluation should always include that of the child’s language skills. Many questions can be answered when the child’s language profile is known, and then appropriate steps can be taken to accommodate or remediate the child’s skills. If this is the case with your child, make a referral today to avoid waiting for the service your family needs.


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Ontario Speech & Language Services