Receptive, Expressive, and Pragmatic Language


What is Language

Language refers to the words, sounds, and gestures we use to express ourselves and to understand the world around us. It is a social tool employed to communicate ideas and/or feelings within a specific group or community. Language is comprised of different parts:

  • Semantics - word meanings, vocabulary

  • Morphology - units of meaning that make up the grammar of a language, e.g., plural 's'

  • Syntax - rules governing the arrangement of grammar and ordering of language units

  • Pragmatics - rules of social interactions

Receptive Language Disorder

A receptive language disorder affects the ability to understand spoken and sometimes written language and often makes it difficult to respond to others appropriately. Children with receptive language disorders can have difficulty processing language and making connections between words and the ideas they represent. School-age children may experience difficulty organizing their thoughts on paper, following single and multi-step directions, and following routines. Receptive language disorders can be associated with conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder, specific language impairment, and pervasive developmental disorder, or they may be caused by brain injuries.


Expressive Language Disorder

A developmental expressive language disorder does not have a known cause and generally appears at the time a child is learning to talk. Acquired expressive language disorder is caused by damage to the brain. It occurs suddenly after events such as a stroke or traumatic head injury. The acquired type can occur at any age. 


An expressive language disorder is characterized by a child having difficulty expressing themselves using speech. The signs and symptoms vary drastically from child to child. The child may have problems putting sentences together coherently, using proper grammar, recalling the appropriate word to use, or other similar problems. A child with an expressive language disorder is not able to communicate thoughts, needs, or wants at the same level or with the same complexity as their peers. The child often has a smaller vocabulary than their peers.

Children with an expressive language disorder typically have the same ability to understand speech-language as their peers, and they have the same level of intelligence. Therefore, a child with this disorder may understand words that they cannot use in sentences. The child may understand complex spoken sentences and be able to carry out intricate instructions, but they cannot form complex sentences.


Imagine these situations: You invited your friend over for dinner. Your child sees your friend reach for some cookies and says, "Better not take those, or you'll get even bigger." You can't believe your child could be so rude. You talk with a neighbor about his new car. He has trouble staying on topic and starts talking about his favorite TV show. He doesn't look at you when you talk and doesn't laugh at your jokes. He keeps talking, even when you look at your watch and say, "Wow. It's getting late." You finally leave, thinking about how hard it is to talk with him.


Both your child and your neighbor speak well. What they may have trouble with is social communication, also called pragmatics. These are the rules that we follow when we talk. There are rules about when and how you should talk to people. We use facial expressions or gestures to share how we feel. We learn how to let someone know when we change the topic. Knowing and using these rules makes it easier to communicate.

Social communication includes three major skills:

Using language for different reasons, such as:

  • Greeting. Saying "hello" or "goodbye."

  • Informing. "I'm going to get a cookie."

  • Demanding. "Give me a cookie right now."

  • Promising. "I'm going to get you a cookie."

  • Requesting. "I want a cookie, please."

Changing language for the listener or situation, such as:

  • Talking differently to a baby than to an adult.

  • Giving more information to someone who does not know the topic. Knowing to skip some details when someone already knows the topic.

  • Talking differently in a classroom than on a playground.

Following rules for conversations and storytelling, such as:

  • Taking turns when you talk.

  • Letting others know the topic when you start talking.

  • Staying on topic.

  • Trying another way of saying what you mean when someone did not understand you.

  • Using gestures and body language, like pointing or shrugging.

  • Knowing how close to stand to someone when talking.

  • Using facial expressions and eye contact.

These rules may be different if you come from another culture.

Problems With Social Communication

A person with social communication problems may:

  • Say the wrong thing or act the wrong way when talking. They may laugh at the wrong time or start talking about something else.

  • Tell stories that do not make sense.

  • Use language in limited ways. They may not say hello, goodbye, or thank you. They may yell instead of asking for what they want.


Children may break some of these rules as they learn. If your child has a lot of problems with these rules, they may have a social communication disorder. They may also have other speech or language problems. They may have trouble talking with others or making friends.