What is expressive language disorder?

Expressive language disorder is a lifelong condition that impacts the ability to use language. People with this language disorder understand what others are saying. But they have a hard time expressing their own ideas when they speak. Expressive language disorder isn’t a speech disorder. It doesn’t affect how people pronounce words. It’s also not a problem with intelligence.

Snapshot: What expressive language disorder is

Expressive language disorder is a problem with communication. It makes it hard for people to share their thoughts or ideas, or show they understand what others are saying. This happens in all settings — at school, at work, and anywhere else people interact.

People with expressive language disorder often struggle to form sentences that make sense. They may need extra time to answer questions or take a turn in a conversation. These challenges can make it hard to connect with people, make friends, and form relationships.

Expressive language disorder is one of three types of language disorder. Many people who have it also have receptive language disorder. That condition makes it hard to understand language.

Expressive language disorder signs and symptoms

Language disorders are usually developmental, and signs show up in early childhood. But kids don’t outgrow these disorders. The symptoms continue through adulthood. For example, both kids and adults with expressive language disorder might say “uh” and “um” a lot when searching for how to answer or what to ask.

Here are other common signs of expressive language disorder:

  • Using vague words, like thing or stuff

  • Having lower-than-average vocabulary

  • Having trouble finding words

  • Using simple sentences or short phrases

  • Using words incorrectly

  • Leaving out words

  • Being late to begin talking

  • Speaking quietly

Many people with expressive language disorder avoid talking altogether. They may find it too frustrating or worry that others will judge them. They may choose not to socialize or interact with classmates or colleagues. As a result, they can come across as distant or withdrawn.

See a full list of expressive language disorder symptoms.

Possible causes of expressive language disorder

There’s no one cause of expressive language disorder. Genetics may play a role since language difficulties tend to run in families. Trouble with expressive language is sometimes related to autism. And it can be the result of problems in pregnancy and birth, and of brain injury or illness.

How expressive language disorder is diagnosed 

To be diagnosed with expressive language disorder, people have to be evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. These specialists work in schools, in clinics, and in private practice.

People can be diagnosed at any age. But since expressive language disorder is developmental, the signs can appear at a very young age. The earlier it’s diagnosed, the sooner kids can get help to improve language skills.

Parents and caregivers: Learn more about expressive language disorder in kids and ways to support your child.

Educators: Explore an evidence-based strategy for teaching vocabulary and one for teaching retelling skills.


Explore related topics

Read next