By Sarah Campbell, MSLT-Prac
In This Article:
- What Is Language Processing?
- When Things Go Wrong
- Symptoms of Language Processing Disorder
- Children with LPD
- LPD in Adults
- Next Steps
Note that this is the second article in my series on Language Processing Disorder, following on from a basic introduction to the topic. If you would like a quick overview of LPD, take a look at my first LPD article here.
What Is Language Processing?
Language Processing is a term used to describe the series of tasks our brain carries out when we hear and utilise language. Before we can understand what Language Processing Disorder is, we need a basic awareness of these mental communication-related tasks. So, we will begin this article by identifying the neural activities that take place during verbal communication. Although Language Processing Disorder can affect written and non-verbal communications, we will limit our focus to the processing of the spoken word for the sake of brevity and clarity!
During conversation when we hear and express language, information is passed through several areas of the brain as we hear individual words, interpret them, store information as memories and finally form our replies. Here is a simplified description of the parts of the brain and the body responsible for these tasks:
- Inner Ear. First, the cochlea of the inner ear reacts to the sound waves of speech and converts them into electrical signals.
- The Auditory Nerve. These electrical signals are passed directly to the Auditory Nerve, which in turn carries the signals to the Auditory Pathway.
- The Auditory Pathway. Signals travel through several “relay points” along the brain stem, which are known as the Auditory Pathway. The brainstem decodes the basic signal, checks for loudness and intensity, then decides whether reflex actions are needed (such as jumping with fright in response to a loud sound). The Auditory Pathway ends at the Auditory Cortex.
- The Auditory Cortex. This is the part of the brain where electrical signals are finally interpreted as sounds, memorised, then recognised as words or other types of sounds. If recognised as words, information is passed along to the area of the brain responsible for comprehending language.
- Wernicke’s Area. Wernicke’s Area is the part of the brain primarily responsible for comprehending language. Comprehension is a complex process. As a short overview, we could say that the process of language comprehension involves two main tasks: understanding language, and expressing language (planning what we will say next). As it plans our expressed language, Wernicke’s Area draws upon stored memories and vocabulary.
- The Broca Area. When we express ourselves verbally, the words we choose are passed to the Broca Area of the brain. The Broca Area controls speech production, coordinating the signals to our mouth, tongue and vocal chords. Note that the Broca Area also works with Wernicke’s Area in helping us comprehend language, as it controls the recognition and use grammar.
- Physical Production of Speech. The final step in language processing is to physically produce our own speech. The tongue, lips, vocal chords and lungs all act in coordination to achieve this.
When Things Go Wrong
Language Processing Disorder affects the areas of the brain responsible for comprehending language – Wernicke’s Area and the Broca Area. Nobody knows for sure why Language Processing Disorder occurs, but we do have a workable understanding of its unique symptoms. It is different to physical hearing loss, where problems occur in the inner ear, and it is a separate issue to Auditory Processing Disorder, which affects the Auditory Cortex. It is not an oral-motor disorder affecting the physical organs of speech, nor is it caused by a poor vocabulary. This means that people with Language Processing Disorder can usually hear fine, and may produce speech with perfect clarity. What’s more is that they may even have quite a broad vocabulary. Rather, symptoms appear in the way their brain understands language, the ease with which it can draw on memories or words, and the way it organises our expressive language. In the next section, we will look at the symptoms of Language Processing Disorder in more detail.
Symptoms of Language Processing Disorder
People who have a Language Processing Disorder find it unusually difficult to understand language and organise their words to express what they have to say. Both adults and children can be affected, with the symptoms appearing differently depending on a person’s age. For children, Language Processing Disorder most noticeably affects their literacy and overall learning. Adults, on the other hand, tend to notice difficulties more when interacting with others. Below, we will look more closely at the symptoms for different age-ranges.
As a parent, there are several symptoms of Language Processing Disorder that you may notice in your child’s home life. He or she may struggle when using language in response to someone else, such as when answering questions or holding a conversation. For this reason, kids with Language Processing Disorder may feel quite uncertain of new situations; they may be unsure as to whether they will be able to respond in the way that is expected of them. They will, however, be much more confident when initiating conversation or talking “on their own terms”. You may also notice improvements in your child’s overall language comprehension when he or she is presented with visual information instead of – or in support of – auditory information. Have you noticed any of the following in your child’s home life?
- They often appear frustrated by having a lot to say, but no way to say it.
- They describe feeling that words are “right on the tip of the tongue”.
- Older children will tend to require regular prompting to speak in complete sentences.
- Your child can describe an object or draw it, but can’t think of the word for it.
- He or she may be depressed or having feelings of sadness, particularly as they cannot express their true intent.
- He or she will be likely to have poor attention to tasks or activities, compared with similarly aged peers.
- They may prefer being the “funny kid”, wherein they make a lot of jokes or subtly change the topic in order to take the pressure off of themselves.
- They may revise answers often – starting a sentence, then restarting to complete it or changing the direction of the sentence altogether. As a parent, you may be questioning whether your child is struggling with a stutter.
- Your child may call things by a different name or a variant, even though you know that he or she “knows it”. You might also notice the excessive use of vague language such as “it”, “thing” or “you know”.
At school, children with Language Processing Disorder may experience a range of difficulties too. Their literacy will appear “patchy”, because on one hand, children with LPD will likely be able to read at an age-appropriate level. On the other hand, however, comprehending the meaning of what they read would be much more difficult. In turn, their poor comprehension often manifests as difficulties when expressing themselves verbally and in writing. Schoolteachers of kids with language processing difficulties will be likely to observe many of the following:
- Difficulties with word finding, naming objects and an excessive use of hesitancies/fillers (um or ah).
- Tendencies to ignore or be confused by spoken questions and instructions. A lot of repetition required.
- Responses to questions with off-topic, irrelevant answers or a default response of “I don’t know”.
- A habit of speaking in incomplete sentences.
- Trouble recognising categories, sequences, associations or patterns.
- Distinct improvements when information/directions are provided in visual format rather than just spoken.
A certain amount of difficulty in learning language is normal as a child grows. However, if difficulties with comprehending and expressing words begin to cause a child to fall behind their peers, it may be worth considering assessment for Language Processing Disorder. Assessment and diagnosis will enable the correct treatment, which in turn will help kids build the skills necessary to thrive academically and socially.
Given the subtle or “patchy” nature of the symptoms of Language Processing Disorder, it is not uncommon for children to go all the way through schooling without any diagnosis or assistance. This is especially true when peers dealing with similar academic struggles surround LPD children, as they will tend to blend in. When children with LPD grow up, they face a unique range of difficulties in their social and professional lives.
Adults with Language Processing Disorder may struggle to express themselves verbally, and often find it unusually hard to understand conversation partners. Quick-fire conversations involving technical jargon, jokes, sarcasm and/or other non-literal uses of language will be particularly hard for them to grasp and partake in. Here are several examples of difficulties that adults may experience, for which Language Processing Disorder may be a contributing factor:
- Inability to find the right words to express one’s thoughts, such as when a word is “on the tip of your tongue”.
- It may actually be easier for adults with Language Processing Disorder to draw or describe a word, instead of verbalising it.
- A tendency to misunderstand questions, or answer the wrong question.
- Excessive effort when making conversation on the phone.
- Difficulties interpreting nuances, jokes or sarcasm; language may tend to be interpreted too literally.
- Poor recall of auditory information.
- Difficulties understanding conversation partners in environments with a lot of background noise.
- Even without background noise, an adult with Language Processing Disorder may frequently ask speakers to repeat themselves.
Adults with LPD can experience sadness or even depression due to the perception that they are being judged for their inabilities. Furthermore, many adults with LPD have been bullied by peers or criticised by adults (who did not know they had LPD) when they were a child/teen.
Language Processing Disorder is treatable, and it is never too late to seek help. Whether you are concerned for your child, or for yourself as an adult, it will be a good starting point to discuss your concerns with a Speech-Language Therapist. After diagnosing LPD, a Speech-Language Therapist will proceed to offer direct treatment as well as practical strategies for home, work or school. Treatment does make a difference! The frustrations you or your child are experiencing will pass, and your/their communication skills can become more than sufficient to meet all of life’s requirements.
Click here for the next article, which will review the assessment and diagnosis process for Language Processing Disorder, as well as treatment strategies.