At the age of 2, the average child has a vocabulary of around 300 words. Both how the child uses her vocabulary and the vocabulary set itself influence the expressive ability of a 2-year-old. Some children at this age are noticeably less expressive with the language they use. If you notice your child having difficulties in expressing her ideas and emotions through language, she may have an expressive language disorder.
Before you find cause for alarm, realize that 2-year-olds develop language at different rates. Some children at this age tend to use more referential language, while others use more expressive language; this is normal. If you notice that your child’s vocabulary is not lacking but her speech is mainly composed of nouns, she may simply have a preference for referential language. In addition, many 2-year-olds without expressive language disorders learn language slowly; 20 percent of healthy 2-year-olds have vocabularies under 100 words. Boys and children with older siblings tend to learn expressive language more slowly, so if you are making inter-family comparisons to determine the expressiveness of your child, keep this fact in mind.
If your child is unaffiliated by other disorders that cause language difficulties, including autism, mental retardation, deafness, and blindness, but you notice severe difficulties is language use, you have cause for suspecting an expressive language disorder. Typically, a child with an expressive language disorder has few similarities with other children with the same disorder; these children strain to acquire grammar and vocabulary but vary in the specifics of their ability of expression. Thus, diagnosis of expressive language disorder is not a simple task. However, one reliable sign of an expressive language disorder in a 2-year-old is the child’s expressive ability being similar to that of a child who has not yet mastered a vocabulary of 50 words: The child will almost exclusively rely on context and nouns to form intelligible speech.
A cyclic environmental problem in which mothers and children speak few words or simple words may heighten the effects of expressive language disorder. Some mothers, upon realizing their child is developing expressive speech at a slow rate, dumb down their own language to communicate better with the child. However, in doing this, the mother is providing less useful language with which the child can learn. This works in a cyclic nature, as when the child’s progress slows down, the mother’s form of speech lowers the rate of increase in complexity.
Research points to genetics as being the primary component of expressive language disorder. This form of disorder often runs in a family, with 20 percent of children who are afflicted with expressive language disorder having family members with similar language problems. Some children are biologically predisposed to having a less effective capacity for learning words and grammar, and this cannot be changed.
The treatment of an expressive language disorder is possible through speech therapy. The speech pathologist will set specific goals for the child to achieve in her expressive speech and will guide the child in obtaining a larger vocabulary. If the child’s speech problem is due to other disorders, treatments directed at alleviating them can also help improve the expressiveness in the child’s speech.