Distinguishing between English as a second language and a language disorder

By Marie Tsilimos

What is the difference between a child with a language disorder and a child who is in the process of acquiring a second language? This can be a difficult question to answer for parents and teachers of children who speak more than one language. Here are some useful tips for parents, teachers and other professionals to help distinguish between the two.

Defining the Difference

English Second Language (ESL) Language Disorder
ESL: An individual currently learning to use and study English when English is not their first language. They require additional support to develop English proficiency.

Mostly grammatical errors, non-specific and limited vocabulary.

May manifest as having a delay in English BUT they have skills in their primary language that are appropriate with their typically developing peers.
Language Disorder: A communication disorder that affects an individual’s ability to learn, understand and use various forms of language, as would be expected for their chronological age.

Difficulties with language comprehension and/or use in both the first and second language.

Assessment Process

  • Does the child speak another language?
  • Does their family speak multiple languages?
  • Do parents mix/alternate between languages? E.g. Mother speaks one language and their father speaks another but they speak broken English to their child.
  • How much exposure is the child getting to their second language?
  • Developmental milestones- both languages (e.g. first words, sentences) and physical (e.g. sitting, crawling, first steps)
  • The number of years of schooling students have had in their home countries and whether their schooling has been disrupted
  • How long have students been learning English, both in Australia and overseas?
  • What is their level of literacy in their first language?
  • Are the students making typical progress in learning English?
  • What is their access to English outside of school hours?
  • Other learning history and achievements in their first and second language.

The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals – 5th Edition (CELF-5) is a comprehensive language assessment used to; diagnose a language disorder, describes the nature of the disorder and assists with planning intervention:

  • Results are compared to the expected skill level for their age.
  • Normed on monolingual Australian children.
  • Assessment should be conducted in a child’s first language as ESL students would score poorly if assessed only in their second language, leading to a misdiagnosis of a language disorder.
  • If this assessment is used with an ESL student in their second language, this must be taken into consideration when scoring.

Refer to a speech pathologist if you are unsure.

Expressive Language Strategies

  • Model the correct pronunciation, word form or sentence structure.
  • Provide binary choice to assist with choosing the correct word or sentence.
  • Allow the student to take their time when speaking.
  • Use visuals to support and prompt the student.
  • Help build the students’ vocabulary by pairing words with visuals.
  • Teach and model correct social communication skills/vocabulary to use for social communication.

Receptive Language Strategies

  • Reduce auditory and visual distractions in the classroom.
  • Prompt and prepare students to listen.
  • Keep instructions short and simple/ repeat instructions using different words.
  • Break down tasks or longer instructions into easy to manage steps.
  • Use gestures/visuals when possible.
  • Speak clearly and slowly and place emphasis on important instructions or words.
  • Check the student has understood the task/instructions (e.g. asking them to repeat in their own words).
  • Provide extra response time.

Parents speak in their native language and model correct forms of language to the child.

  • Speech Pathologists are trained to determine whether a child is ESL and/or if they have a language disorder.
  • Assessment helps to identify areas of strength and areas of improvement to form appropriate treatment plans for the child.
  • Intervention targets developmental appropriateness, academic improvements and improvements with social communication.
  • Refer/work alongside ESL team in schools.
  • Speech Pathologists help to develop a child’s listening and speaking skills to allow them to communicate effectively in all contexts.
  • Liaise with parents/carers, teachers and other health professionals to ensure the child’s communication is supported in all environments.
  • Help with developing oral language which in turn will have positive outcomes on reading and writing skills.


Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. F., Simon-Cereijido, G., & Wagner, C. (2008). Bilingual children with language impairment: A comparison with monolinguals and second language learners. Applied psycholinguistics, 29(1), 3-19. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0142716408080016

Prezas, Raul F. PhD, CCC-SLP and Jo, Ahyea A. PhD (2017) “Differentiating Language Difference and Language Disorder: Information for Teachers Working with English Language Learners in the Schools,” Journal of Human Services: Training, Research, and Practice: Vol. 2 : Iss. 1 , Article 2.
Available at: https://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/jhstrp/vol2/iss1/2

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