Specific Language Impairment in Children

Many people aren't aware of the implications of specific language impairment in children. In this article you'll find everything you need to know about it.
Specific Language Impairment in Children

Last update: 13 November, 2020

Specific language impairment (SLI) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects, mainly, the acquisition and development of spoken language. In addition, it relates to other problems regarding linguistic abilities and other learning areas.

According to Mónica Vilameá Pérez, speech therapist, this serious disorder affects around 2-7 % of children, which is a big number. And, they usually feel misunderstood because most people don’t know SLI’s symptoms.

“We talk about SLI as an invisible disorder because, if it doesn’t include other notorious symptoms, people don’t detect it. And then, the linguistic resources needed to fulfill social and academic linguistic demands are not available.”  

– Elvira Mendoza Lara –


Specific Language Impairment in Children

Specific language impairment in children

Children with specific language impairment (SLI) present problems in the following areas:

  • Understanding language.
  • Language production.
  • Language acquisition.

It’s important to point out that children with this condition don’t show hearing, cognitive, motor, emotional, sensory or neurological impairment. In addition, they can present:

  • Problems in reading and writing acquisition.
  • Difficulties in math calculations and problem solutions.
  • Attention and focusing problems.
  • Certain degree of hyperactivity.
  • Problems in social skills.
  • Behavior problems (disruptive or oppositional defiant).
  • Difficulties in working memory.

Therefore, we can state that specific language impairment leads to many school problems. Fortunately, a proper speech therapist intervention may solve all difficulties and limitations related to development and learning. Accordingly, an ideal moment to start therapy is when children are two or three years old.

As a result, you can get a better prognosis, but first, a suspected diagnosis is needed. Thus, it’s important to be aware of signs that may lead us to an early diagnosis.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Early diagnosis of specific language impairment in children

The first signs of possible SLI cases appear when children are two years old. This a list of alarming signs you may notice:

  • Vocabulary of less than 50 words.
  • Dyslalia: difficulty to articulate and pronounce words.
  • Inability to form phrases.
  • Tendency to throw tantrums, due to expression problems because of the limited vocabulary.

In addition, when children are three or five years old they can present the following signs:

  • Mistakes in the pronunciation of phonemes.
  • Unintelligible speech (they speak in an incomprehensive way).
  • Mutism (they stop talking).
  • Semantic mistakes.
  • Pragmatic mistakes.
  • Social deprivation: better relationships with adults than with children)
  • Motor clumsiness.
  • Problems to follow instructions and orders.
  • Specular o mirror writing.
  • Difficulty to follow sequences.
  • Difficulty to understand amounts.
  • Immaturity to know their own body.
Specific Language Impairment in Children

“An early prognosis of learning and language disorders is essential to start an early treatment that will allow school adaptation. And, it will also prevent alterations in the academic performance or emotional sequels. This may condition prognosis and treatment effectiveness.”

– Francisco Javier Garrido Torrecillas and others –

What should I do if I notice alarming signs?

If as a parent or a teacher you notice these signs, you should visit the pediatrician. Then, the doctor will probably refer you to a neurologist and a speech therapist. Finally, they will carry out the corresponding analysis to elaborate, if convenient, an SLI diagnosis.

Finally, it’s important to know that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) doesn’t include SLI as a diagnostic category. So, currently, this disorder is within the group of language impairments.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Garrido-Torrecillas, F. J. (2014). Programa de Salud Infantil y Adolescente de Andalucía: Actividades de intervención y cribado universales detección precoz de trastornos del lenguaje y del aprendizaje. Junta de Andalucía: Consejería de Igualdad, Salud y Políticas Sociales.
  • Mendoza-Lara, E. (2016). Trastorno específico del lenguaje (TEL). Madrid: Ediciones Pirámide.
  • Vilameá, M. (2014). Trastorno Específico del Lenguaje, guía para la intervención en el ámbito educativo. España: Asociación TEL Galicia.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.