Most adults who have language disorders don’t even know it—but they can tell there’s something a bit different about the way they communicate:
I think in paragraphs, but I speak in sentences.
When I try to communicate, it feels like I’m speaking in a second language. But I’m speaking in my first language, it’s the only one I know.
I know so much more than I'm able to express sometimes, and it really holds me back.
As soon as someone starts talking I stop listening and my mind imagines what I expect them to say. Then I realize I've missed it.
I can see that the person doesn’t understand what I’m saying when I talk, but I can’t figure out how to make them understand.
When I lose track of what I'm saying I'm worried it makes people think less of me.
These are things we hear over and over again from adults who struggle with language processing. It’s normal to sometimes go blank when you’re trying to communicate something. It’s normal to occasionally struggle to recall the perfect word that you know exists to succinctly express yourself. It’s normal to lose track of the conversation sometimes, whether you’re the listener or the speaker.
But if you frequently, constantly, day-in, day-out, struggle to match your thoughts to words and to keep up with the pace of conversations...you may have a language disorder.
A language disorder is a neurologically-based condition that creates difficulty with understanding language and communication (receptive language) and/or verbalizing (or writing!) your thoughts aloud or on paper (expressive language). Language disorders can occur as a result of stroke or other injury to the brain. They can also occur as a result of neurodevelopmental differences. In other words, some people are simply wired with a non-optimal language system.
You mean some people just have trouble following conversation and putting thoughts into words, to a point that it’s considered a disorder (disability, even)? Yes. It is very much “a thing.”
There are varied statistics on the prevalence of language disorders, anywhere from 2-16% of the population. For comparison, the prevalence of autism is just under 2% The prevalence of left-handedness is estimated to be 10-15%.
If you struggle with receptive aspects of language, you may get exhausted, lost or overwhelmed when trying to process verbal information. This is particularly true if you are supposed to remember the information and do something with it afterwards. You may feel like you listen more “slowly” than other people.
If you struggle with expressive aspects of language, you may feel a constant sense of struggle or effort when it comes to turning your thoughts into words. Even if you have a strong vocabulary, you may feel like you’re only able to access a small supply of words when speaking and/or writing. If you’re in a lively group conversation and have something to contribute, you may struggle to do so at the same pace as others—by the time you have your words together, the conversation has moved on. You may be intelligent, thoughtful, creative, kind, empathetic...but unable to express this, because your thoughts and talents are held captive behind a barrier of inaccessible words.
The silent, invisible masses
We have many clients who contact us because they know they have a specific communication condition that they want to address. “I stutter.” “I have a lisp.” “I have vocal nodules.”
We have many others who do not know why they have a hard time communicating, but they want help. “I can never put my thoughts into words.” “I get lost when listening.” “People think I’m less intelligent because I can’t say what I think.”
I remember clearly one client who came to our office. “I think I have a language disorder,” she said.
I was surprised, because while we work with many clients who have language disorders, very few of them realize that’s the likely cause of their struggles. “How do you know about language disorders?”
“Well, I didn’t until recently,” she said. “My son is in kindergarten and the teacher said we should take him to a speech therapist, because he has trouble talking. We had him evaluated. I read the report and it was describing everything he had trouble with. And I was like, oh my gosh, I have all these same problems. And I see all the things that his speech therapist is doing to help him communicate, and I need help with all those same things! So I thought maybe there is speech therapy for me, even though I’m an adult.”
Why haven’t I heard of this?
Even at the very lowest estimate, 2% of people is a lot of people. For every 100 people you meet, that’s two people with a language disorder!
The prevalence statistics cited above come entirely from studies on young children, elementary aged or young (mostly kindergarten, in fact). Here’s the thing about language disorders: neurodevelopmental conditions are, broadly speaking, lifelong wiring patterns. Teaching, learning, and training can make a difference; left-handed people can learn to use their right hand (and vice versa!) But there are deep-rooted patterns of difference that persist throughout the lifespan. Children with language disorders grow up to be adults with language disorders.
Living with a language order as an adult is a big, big, big deal. Listening, speaking, and communicating are essential for, well, pretty much everything in life. So why have you never heard of this? Because according to speech pathologists and other related professionals, adults with language disorders don’t exist. Or maybe they do, but the professionals don’t acknowledge them.
The Spoken Language Disorder information page by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association provides information for people 3-21 years of age who may be impacted by speech-language impairment (SLI). Assessment and treatment information is for children and teenagers. There are a few paragraphs for “transitioning youth and post-secondary students.”
Language disorders do not disappear with a college degree or a 25th birthday. And the complex communication demands of life tend to grow as we age and mature in our careers, family responsibilities, and social roles.
It’s time to start talking about language processing differences and how to support those with rich intellectual thoughts who parse sentences a little differently than most of those around them.
Changing the narrative
If you are an adult with a language disorder (or you think you might be), you are not doomed to struggle for the rest of your life. Communication therapy and counseling can help you learn strategies, tools, and even strengthen your underlying skills to help navigate communication with more ease, confidence, and enjoyment.
If you think you know someone with a language disorder, there are a lot of ways you can adapt your own communication to support theirs. Get comfortable with resting in silence or pauses so the person has time to formulate their words. Slow down your own rate of speech, and pause between major ideas. If you work together, provide advance previews of questions or information to reduce the pressure of on-the-spot responses. Build “comprehension check time” into long or information-dense verbal presentations and discussions. Provide summaries and repetition. Use multi-modal communication (written + oral) as much as possible. Be mindful of background stimuli (extra noise, multiple side conversations) that make it more difficult to process and focus.
If you have a language disorder, you are not alone, even though it may feel like it. People with language disorders have a unique perspective on communication and contribute a powerful perspective in a fast-paced world. Language processing differences are an under-acknowledged and underappreciated form of diversity. We should be talking more about language processing identities, and more importantly, listening to those who live this experience every day.