Language has two very broad areas: the words and concepts a person understands, also called receptive language, and the words and concepts a person can convey to others, also called expressive language. For individuals with Down syndrome, receptive language abilities are typically higher than expressive language abilities, meaning that a person can understand more than they can communicate to other people.

Language can also be divided into emerging language and higher-level language skills. Emerging language refers to the ability to make requests, state preferences, and comment on the environment. People with emerging language must learn to do more than request objects. Using language for other purposes such as refusing, commenting, sharing information, requesting help, and greetings is also essential. Examples of this might include communicating “more milk”, “don’t want that”, or “big car”, “hi”, “help please”. Students at this stage can combine words either with spoken words, sign language, or an AAC device.

Higher-level language skills include asking and answering WH questions (what, where, why, when), communicating about the past and future, clarifying information, problem solving, and using longer, more complex sentences. Again, this level of language can be expressed through spoken words, AAC devices, or sign language.

People with Down syndrome usually demonstrate delayed language development, meaning it takes them longer to learn language skills than typically developing peers. Children and teens with Down syndrome may also demonstrate language disorders. They may learn new skills in a sequence that isn’t often seen in typically developing peers. Because of these factors and differences in social communication, children and teens with Down syndrome benefit from Speech-Language Therapy that supports their language development.

Early strategies for language development focus on supporting parents to provide an enriched language environment at an appropriate developmental level. Parents and caregivers identify the communication areas that are most important for the family, and the therapist helps the family to identify and practice effective strategies to support the child to reach those goals.

As individuals mature, they may want to take a more significant role in selecting goals for themselves. They may have a topic, situation, or person/peer group in mind when learning new language skills. Ownership over the goal-setting process increases the overall level of participation in teens and young adults. The primary strategy for supporting language is Augmentative and Alternative Communication, visit the AAC section to learn more. 

DSRF Resources

Supporting Individuals with Down Syndrome in the Classroom

The LowDOWN Podcast, Episode 1-6: Jillian Baldwin, M.Sc. RSLP: Early and Higher Level Communication Skills (May 20, 2020)

The LowDOWN Podcast, Episode 1-1: Dr Susan Fawcett, M.Sc. RSLP: Learning and Development in Individuals with Down Syndrome (Apr. 15, 2020)

The LowDOWN Podcast, Episode 2-2: Dr Susan Fawcett, M.Sc. RSLP – Learning and Development: Common Questions (Sept. 16, 2020)

External Resources

The Hanen Centre

It Takes Two to Talk

Libby Kumin book series