Language Disorder or Language Difference/Limited Proficiency?

Language Disorder versus Language Difference

A language disorder is a significant discrepancy in language skills relative to a child’s age or developmental level. A language difference is a rule-governed language style that deviates from standard usage of mainstream culture.

Children from different cultural backgrounds who are English language learners (ELLs) CAN have a language disorder; however, many ELL children who are referred for a speech-language assessment simply have limited English proficiency. These children have average proficiency in their native, primary language as compared to proficiency in English. As a result, many children are misdiagnosed with a language disorder. It is important for professionals to determine at what stage the child is in terms of being fully competent in English.

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills versus Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

Children at the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) Stage can use vocabulary that are frequent in the language (English, in this case), produce more or less appropriate grammatical sentences, and can engage in everyday conversations about familiar events and objects. According to Paul and Norbury (2012), it is estimated that it can take a child an average of 2 to 3 years of exposure to and experience with English to achieve BICS. It is important to remember that children at the BICS stage, while appearing to be fluent in English, will present with difficulties succeeding at the academic level and therefore, appear to have a language-learning disorder. Children at the BICS stage will present with difficulties reading higher level texts that require adequate comprehension, producing written discourse (i.e. argumentative and compare/contrast essays), using and understanding subject-specific (i.e. science) vocabulary, and engaging in cognitively demanding communication.

According to Paul and Norbury (2012), it is estimated that to achieve Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), it can take at least 5 to 7 years.

Despite what stage your child is at, your child CAN present with a language disorder if it is also present in your child’s native, primary language. If there is a language disorder present in the native, primary language, your child may present with difficulty moving past the limited English proficiency/BICS stage. 

How can I determine if my child has a language difference or a disorder?

With careful assessment, a speech-language pathologist can reveal a language difference or disorder. It is important to reveal whether there is a language disorder present in the child’s native language; therefore, an initial evaluation in the child’s native language is pertinent to determining if it is a lack of proficiency in English or if there is a disorder present.

What are some examples of language differences?

The child (or adult’s) native language can have an influence on English. See below for some general examples:

  • Spanish-Influenced English
    • Verbs
      • May leave off the regular past -ed on verbs
      • Copula may be produced as “have” such as “I have 10 years versus “I am 10 years old”
      • Future tense go + to, such as “I go to have dinner” versus “I am going to have dinner”
    • Nouns/Pronouns
      • Possessive markers substituted by prepositional phrases: “the doll of my sister” versus “My sister’s doll”
      • Possessive markers substituted by articles: “I cut the arm” versus “I cut my arm”
      • Plural s (dogs, cats, hats) omitted
      • Articles (the, a, an) often omitted
      • Subject pronouns may be omitted: “John is sick. Got flu” versus “John is sick, he has the flu”
      • The word “more” is used as a comparative: “He is more tall” versus “He is taller”
    • Negatives
      • “No” replacing “don’t” such as “No go too fast” versus “Don’t go too fast”
      • “No” replacing “not” such as “She no go to work” versus “She is not going to work”
    • Questions
      • “Do” is optional: “You want some?” versus “Do you want some?


  •  Asian Languages and their Influence on English
    • Verbs
      • “to be” verb omitted or improperly used: “I is going” or “I going”
      • Auxiliary “do” may be omitted or improperly used: “He not going” or “He do not go”
      • Regular past tense -ed may be omitted or overgeneralized: “I have eat” or “I have eated”
      • Errors with noun-verb agreement: “You goes” versus “You went”
    • Nouns/Pronouns
      • Plural -s may be omitted or overgeneralized: “two dog” or “the sheeps”
      • Errors with possessive markers: “him book” versus “his book”
      • Errors with comparatives: “he is gooder” versus “he is better”
    • Negatives
      • Double marking: “I didn’t hear nothing” versus “I didn’t hear anything”
      • Simplified marker: “He no want” versus “He doesn’t want”
    • Questions
      • No reversal of auxiliary verb: “You are going?” versus “Are you going?”

(Paul, R. & Norbury, C., 2012)


If you believe your child has a language disorder and does not present with a language difference or simply limited English proficiency, it is important to schedule an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist. 



— Amanda Hammer, M.A. CF-SLP, TSSLD



  • Paul, R., & Norbury, C. (2012). Language disorders: From infancy through adolescence: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and communicating (Fourth ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

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