For children, development of language skills is critically important. Through language, all other aspects of our culture are communicated. Language skills are essential for academic and social success.
Although many animals communicate, human language is unique in that it is a symbolic system and it is learned, not inherited. Children learn the sounds of language by listening to their parents and imitating what they hear. So parents have an important role in helping their children develop age-appropriate language skills.
Receptive and expressive language
In broad terms, language is divided into two categories: receptive language, or understanding what is said or written; and expressive language, or speaking and writing. If a child has a language problem, it may be that he is fine with receptive language and his difficulties lie with the expressive side of language. In other words, the child can understand what is being said, though he has difficulty expressing himself. A child’s language problem may also be the opposite scenario, that is, he can express himself but has difficulty understanding what others are saying. He may also have difficulty with both expressive and receptive language.
Children tend to understand language before they produce language. In other words, their receptive language begins to develop before their expressive language. Typically, a child’s comprehension is better than what they can say or express.
Speech and language problems
Speech is a part of expressive language. These distinctions: receptive and expressive language, and speech, which is simply one part of expressive language, are important, especially if a problem exists. The type of help a child receives may depend on whether he is having a problem with receptive or expressive language, or both. For example, very often “speech therapy” is a matter of improving enunciation so that the child’s words and phrases are more intelligible. If a child is having a problem comprehending language or difficulty with the skills beyond speech needed to express himself, improving enunciation is not really addressing the problem.
Children born prematurely are often late to talk. By some estimates, about 30% of children born prematurely will have a difficulty with language at 20 months of age. Some of the children will grow out of this problem; others, especially those who sustained a brain injury of some sort, may not. It is not unusual for language problems to remain into school years for these children.
Even though many premature children do grow out of their language problems, if a problem is suspected, parents should seek help. As with many disabilities, the earlier intervention begins, the better chance there is of reducing the effect of the problem.