This revision: 26th April 2013 .
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Specific language impairment (SLI) is diagnosed when a child has delayed or disordered language development for no apparent reason.
Usually the first indication of SLI is that the child is later than usual in starting to speak and subsequently is delayed in putting words together to form sentences. Spoken language may be immature throughout corresponds to an expressive language impairment. In many children with SLI, understanding of language, or receptive language, is also impaired, though this may not be obvious unless the child is given a formal assessment.
Although difficulties with use and understanding of complex sentences are a common feature of SLI, the diagnostic criteria encompass a wide range of problems, and for some children other aspects of language are problematic (see below). In general, the term SLI is reserved for children whose language difficulties persist into school age, and so it would not be applied to toddlers who are late to start talking, most of whom catch up with their peer group after a late start.
The terminology for children’s language disorders is extremely wide-ranging and confusing, with many labels that have overlapping but not necessarily identical meanings. In part this confusion reflects uncertainty about the boundaries of SLI, and the existence of different subtypes. Historically, the terms ‘’developmental dysphasia’’ or ‘’developmental aphasia’’ were used to describe children with the clinical picture of SLI.
These terms have, however, largely been abandoned, as they suggest parallels with adult acquired aphasia. This is misleading, as SLI is not caused by brain damage. In medical circles, terms such as specific developmental language disorder are often used, but this has the disadvantage of being wordy, and is also rejected by some people who think SLI should not be seen as a ‘disorder’.
In the UK educational system, speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) is currently the term of choice, but this is far broader than SLI, and includes children with speech and language difficulties arising from a wide range of causes.