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Language is the heart of human connection – parents explain, guide, and instruct. In turn children are expected to learn, listen, and understand. This is all achieved through the language of both words and behaviour. 

And yet for some, communication is fractured, leading to confusion, frustration, even anger – possibly for both parent and child. Statistically, those who struggle with language as children often endure these issues throughout their lives. Where behaviour is not part of the presentation, the diagnosis and subsequent treatment are more likely to go unaddressed. 

This blog will explore the underlying features of language and communication – including why weaknesses in brain processes contribute to language-based disabilities and difficulties. We’ll also introduce the opportunity to transform struggles to strengths - through a powerful neuroplastic approach. 

What is a Language-Based Learning Difficulty?

A language-based learning difficulty refers to the range of issues related to the expression and reception of language. Struggles can span spoken, written or even non-verbal communication. 

Individuals diagnosed with language-based learning difficulties have average (or in some cases above average) intelligence, but struggle to use and understand language effectively. 

Listed are some of the most common language-based learning diagnoses, and a brief description of their nature: 

Receptive Language Disorder: trouble receiving and processing language

Expressive Language Disorder: difficulties with the structure and transmission of language

Auditory Processing Disorder: trouble attending to and following what’s being said 

Dysphasia: umbrella term that can refer to speech or comprehension 

Dyslexia: issues with written language, may include decoding and comprehension of text

Dysgraphia: trouble with formation of letters and words affecting written language 

Another important and often misunderstood area of language – how we communicate without using words at all:

Non-Verbal Communication Difficulties: trouble perceiving and interpreting body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and surrounding situation 

What are the Symptoms of a Language-Based Learning Difficulty?

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher

Language is an essential life tool.  Difficulties are widespread, and can also take on many forms. 

Consider the child who: 

  • communicates with shrugs, nods, or “I don’t know”.
  • says something nonsensical, awkward, or even rude.
  • can communicate reasonably in writing, but avoids speaking.
  • can communicate reasonably when speaking, but avoids writing.
  • nods that they understand the task, but cannot execute its steps.
  • repeats your question, rather than providing an answer.
  • is easily hurt by gentle teasing, or always misses the joke.
  • have teachers reporting  distraction, poor listening or attention. 

Humans rely on the full spectrum of language – including verbal, non-verbal and written–to understand and be understood. Struggles with communication therefore lead not only to academic and social challenges: they profoundly impact one’s participation in the world, and how they see themselves. 

 What Are the Causes of a Language-Based Learning Difficulty? 

Simply put, it starts in the brain. 

Your child’s brain is made up of a unique combination of cognitive functions and networks that underlie all learning. These brain processes directly shape how they acquire and use language, both verbal and non-verbal. Their strengths and struggles as a communicator are determined by the capacity of distinct cognitive functions.

Consider the following cognitive functions influence on language development:

Predicative Speech – encoding language critical for understanding and expression 

Symbol Relations – processing the meaning of language 

Non-Verbal Thinking – “reading the room” including body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and the situation

Broca’s Speech Pronunciation – phonetic awareness and memory essential for pronunciation 

Kinesthetic Speech – how the mouth, tongue, and lips work together to speak

Auditory Speech Discrimination – hearing the subtle differences in speech like ‘hear’ and ‘fear’

Read more about how different cognitive functions impact learning issues here: Lifelong Learning  

These cognitive functions are instrumental in our ability to acquire, use and apply language. Our cognitive profile also determines whether learning is an experience that can be managed successfully and independently, or whether learning requires extra time and effort, resources, tools, support - and even then, often with limited success. 

Important to keep in mind is how often language-based struggles are missed or misunderstood, particularly for children who have strengths in other cognitive functions that may enable them to ‘get by’.  For example, when struggling to comprehend oral instructions, a student may follow along with their classmates, appearing as though they’ve understood. While certain coping  strategies may offer temporary relief, they aren’t solutions. 

Another pitfall is inconsistent performance; for example, a gifted oral storyteller who avoids expressing themselves fully in writing. They are seen as underachievers, receiving report card comments such as “if only they put their mind to it”, or “needs to listen better in class”, or “she just needs to be more organized”. Despite the best efforts of educators, sometimes students’ challenges are simply mislabeled or misunderstood. 

A language-based difficulty through a cognitive perspective invites a very different understanding. What may appear to be rudeness, misbehavior, laziness, or inflexibility, is in fact a cognitive challenge

There is awareness and compassion to be gained from this perspective. There is also, importantly, an opportunity. The opportunity for cognitive transformation. 

Language-Based Learning Difficulties Can be Overcome Through Neuroplastic Approaches

Once we identify why a child is challenged by language, we can target the very cause of their struggle. 

For the last 40 years, the Arrowsmith Program has provided cognitive programming that targets the weak capacities responsible for many of these issues. Programs include improving one’s processing of language, visual or auditory memory, attention, language sequencing, nonverbal thinking, and many other aspects of communication.  Each cognitive exercise is based on principles of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change through targeted activity. With these programs and the expertise of dedicated facilitators, Arrowsmith goes beyond traditional educational methods of compensation, accommodation, and curriculum modification. Instead, children address precisely what is contributing to their struggle, and overcome it. 

As parents we hope to provide our children with everything they need in this world. To consider your child’s experiences through their brain’s unique makeup, you can gain important insight into the “whys” behind how they communicate and, importantly,   provide them with a solution to dramatically improve their reality.

We had a birthday party with a lot of adults, and she sat and talked to people throughout the whole room. Before, she would have retreated to her room. When she tried to communicate previously, she could not make herself understood, so she became frustrated and withdrew. She was shy with adults. Recently, a neighbour told me until lately he hadn’t realized that Tanya had dimples. Now she knows how to smile. 

Ginny, parent of Arrowsmith participant Tanya. Age 10
 The Woman Who Changed Her Brain (page 82)

Interested in learning how you can help your child strengthen their brain, helping them to overcome their language-based learning difficulties and improve academic performance and overall well-being? Reach out to an Arrowsmith School, or an Arrowsmith provider, located online and around the world. In doing so, your child can strengthen their core language and redefine their ability to participate in the world. 




Tara Bonner
Post by Tara Bonner
October 17, 2023
Tara Bonner collaborates with professionals and educators worldwide, envisioning the convergence of learning and neuroscience. Tara has witnessed that cognitive programming can be a transformative force not just for struggling learners, but for all seeking to experience learning with ease and joy. She's honored to be part of these discussions and an organization that's revolutionizing education by putting the "Brain in Education."