Language delay is a failure to develop language abilities following the usual developmental pattern. Language delay refers specifically to a delay in the development of the underlying knowledge of language rather than its implementation (speech).
The difference between language and speech can be understood by considering the relationship between a computer program and an output device like a printer. The software running on the computer (a word processing program) is designed to allow a user to create content that is stored in the computer. In order to create a physical copy of the file, the computer requires another device: the printer. The printer takes the file and transforms it into a series of commands which control the movement of a print head, thereby making marks on paper.
This two-stage process is something like the distinction between language (computer program) and speech (the printer). When we want to communicate something, the first stage is to encode the message into a set of words and sentence structures that convey our meaning. These processes are collectively what we refer to as language.
In the second stage, language is translated into motor commands that control the articulators (at the level of the mouth – lips, jaw and tongue), thereby creating speech. Speech refers to the actual process of making sounds, using such organs and structures as the lungs, vocal cords, mouth, tongue, teeth, etc.
Because language and speech are two independent stages, they may be individually delayed. For example, a child may be delayed in speech (unable to produce certain speech sounds), but not delayed in language. In this case, the child would be attempting to produce an age-appropriate amount of language, but that language would be difficult or impossible to understand because of poor speech. Conversely, a child with a language delay typically has not yet had the opportunity to produce speech sounds; it is therefore likely to have a delay in speech as well.
Language delay is commonly divided into receptive and expressive categories. Receptive language refers to the process of understanding what is said to us. Expressive language refers to the use of words and sentences to communicate what we think, need, and want.
One particularly common result of language delay is delayed or inadequate acquisition of reading skills. Reading depends upon an ability to code and decode script (match speech sounds with symbols, and vice versa). If a child is still struggling to master language and speech, it is very difficult to then learn another level of complexity (writing). Thus, it is crucial that children have facility with language in order to be successful readers.
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