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Developmental Language Disorder Affects Adult Learning Too


Friday, July 24, 2020

​Developmental language disorder (DLD) is a common condition, affecting around 7% of the population. A key feature of DLD is that it cannot be explained by other conditions that affect language learning like intellectual disability, autism s​pectrum disorder, or hearing impairment. In other words, the primary problem is difficulty learning, understanding, and using language. The problem arises in childhood; however, DLD persists into adulthood, interfering with language learning in ways that can affect educational and professional achievement.

Most research on DLD is focused on school-aged children ​where the goal is to support effective strategies for educational programs. For adults with DLD, there is much less awareness and information. Karla McGregor, Ph.D., and her team at Boys Town National Research Hospital have been working to address this information disparity.

In a series of studies they hav​e examined the ability of young adults with DLD to learn and recall new words. Dr. McGregor explained that “there are many parts to learning a new word, including its sounds, spelling, meaning, grammatical role, and its appropriate use”. Her research shows that adults with DLD have strengths and well as weaknesses in various aspects of word learning.

In their most recent study [1], the team found that learning new words is a challenge for young adults with DLD but, once learned, their memory for the new words was generally good. There is also an interesting finding from this study that the women demonstrated stronger retention of the words than men, although this finding varies across studies. When it comes to new words, learning the sounds and their order is difficult for people with DLD, but learning word meaning is also a relative strength.

One of the biggest challenges with DLD is awareness. It is a prevalent condition, but many people have never heard of it. Researchers at Boys Town Hospital and around the world are working to educate people, develop resources, and raise awareness. If you are interested in learning more about these efforts, check out Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (RADLD) and for more articles and information.


  1. McGregor, K.K., Arbisi-Kelm, T., Eden, N., Oleson, J. (2020) The word learning profile of adults with developmental language disorder; Autism & Developmental Language Impairment; 5(1) 1–19. DOI:10.1177/2396941519899311

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