Cleveland speech therapists

Receptive Language Delays: The No. 1 Overlooked Problem in Late Talkers

If you have asked yourself whether your child is a”late talker” or if there’s some larger underlying issue, it’s important to understand that a delay in speech may only be one part of the problem. From the point of view of our Cleveland speech therapists, receptive language delays are among the most common – but overlooked – challenges in children who struggle to communicate.

What Are Receptive Language Delays?

A child is usually going to understand what he or she hears before actually using words. In a nutshell, that is receptive language. A child with receptive language delays is one who struggles to understand what others are saying.

As the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) explains, language refers to the words we use and how they are used in order to share ideas and get what we want. It differs from speech, which is the way we say sounds and words. Speech includes our articulation, voice and fluency. Language, on the other hand, encompasses:

  • Understanding the meaning of words. This can be really tricky, especially if words have more than one meaning. For instance, a crane is a kind of bird, but it’s also a type of construction equipment. It can also be an action (“She had to crane her neck to see the show.”).
  • Making new words. Take the word “friend.” If we switch it up and say “befriend,” “unfriendly” or “friendship,” we build on the original word, but they each mean something different.
  • How we put words together. Instead of saying, “Zack walk his dog new,” we’d say, “Zack walked his new dog.”
  • Recognizing the appropriate timing for certain words. For instance, if we’re trying to pass someone in an aisle, we may politely request, “Excuse me, could I move past, please?” But in an emergency, we might yell, “Move out of the way!”

Some of these are advanced concepts, but they show how you might recognize pretty quickly in a one-on-one interaction if older child or adult struggled with receptive language. In younger children, though, receptive language delays can be trickier to spot. Parents, teachers and sometimes even doctors and therapists might miss the signs. Yet often, when a toddler isn’t saying very much, it’s often because they don’t understand very much.

How Do I Know if My Child Understands Language? 

Perhaps the most obvious way small children show us that they understand what we are saying is by responding to it. You say their name and they look at you. You give them simple instructions (“Pick up the blue ball”) and they follow through. They participate when you are talking to them.

If you still aren’t sure, test your theory with this: Casually ask if they want to go outside and play. Try to keep your tone neutral, without any great inflection in your voice. A child who understands you will respond by doing things like:

  • Getting excited.
  • They grin broadly (or cry/throw a tantrum if they don’t want to go outside).
  • Enthusiastically shake their head no or yes.
  • Run to the front door.
  • Grab your hand and try to pull you along.
  • Start to gather outside toys or go to the closet where you keep their shoes, coat, etc.

The response might be very different depending on your child’s mood, the weather outside, etc., but the point is, your child does not need to say a word for you to know they understood what you just said.

If your child gets to 18-months-old or so and doesn’t respond to his/her name, can’t go get a familiar item on request, won’t point to certain body parts when asked, can’t answer when you show pictures of common items and ask, “Where’s the _?” – they probably have receptive language delays or a receptive language disorder.

There can be a lot of causes for a receptive language disorder, but sometimes it’s related to hearing impairment, vision impairment, an attention disorder or a general developmental or cognitive delay or impairment.

Our Cleveland speech therapists encourage parents not to ignore these signs. We do understand that toddlers can be challenging when it comes to obeying even simple orders, but a child who truly doesn’t understand what you have asked could be in a very different situation. Speech-language therapy is an effective treatment for many receptive language disorders, with greater success reported the sooner it starts.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides speech therapy to children in Akron, Brecksville-Broadview Heights and Cleveland. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email

Additional Resources:

Late Blooming or Language Problem? American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

More Blog Entries:

Speech Therapy Tips for Teaching that Tricky “R” Sound, July 28, 2020, Cleveland Speech Therapist Blog