Using receptive and expressive language

Effective communication requires a high level of language skills. When communicating with one another, people use a combination of both their receptive and expressive language. In this post, one of our intermediaries Miriam explores what these language skills are, and why many people don’t know the difference between the two.

Receptive language skills are important in communication as they allow you to have successful interactions with others. ‘Receptive’ refers to the understanding of language. These language skills are key to communication as they allow a reciprocal exchange to take place.

For example, if a person does not understand what is being said to them, they cannot give an appropriate response, which could lead to a breakdown in communication. Receptive language is more than just listening to someone. It can be described as the ‘input’ of the language. It is a person’s ability to comprehend spoken language that they hear or read.

If someone is asked to “pass me the salt”, this relies on their receptive language ability. Much of receptive language is inferring meaning from our experiences and environment. When children are developing, they are usually able to understand (receptively) more language than they can use (expressively). This is one reason why people’s receptive vocabularies are often larger than their expressive vocabularies.

Understanding is built on:

  • receptive vocabulary – understanding of words
  • receptive grammar – understanding meaning the grammatical structure of a sentence
  • non-verbal communication – this level includes understanding non-verbal communication and drawing inference from language. You can learn more about pragmatics in a recent Communicourt post on how difficulties with pragmatics can affect our service users. 

In this post, we’ll be focussing on the building blocks of receptive language, receptive vocabulary, and grammar, as well as taking a closer look at expressive language.

There are a number of people who struggle with their receptive language. This difficulty can be harder to spot, as it is often hidden and not as obvious as an expressive language difficulty. Many people learn to mask their receptive difficulties, often by ‘nodding along’ and agreeing, without indicating that they have not understood. These individuals may find it hard when:

  • following directions
  • understanding questions
  • understanding the meaning of words
  • making inferences
  • paying attention

Expressive language

On the other hand, expressive language is the ‘output’ of the language. This sort of language skill encapsulates a person’s ability to express their wants and needs through verbal or nonverbal communication. It is the ability to put thoughts into words and sentences in a way that makes grammatical sense and is understood by the listener.

Again, there are a number of people who struggle with their expressive language. These individuals may find the following hard:

  • using words in sentences
  • grammar
  • sentence structure
  • telling their side of the story

Receptive language in court

The courtroom environment poses a number of barriers for those with receptive language difficulties. Trials and hearings require individuals to demonstrate excellent attention skills, while rapidly processing information, comprehending different types of questioning and being able to listen to more than one person at a time.

Receptive vocabulary

Courtrooms are full of specialised vocabulary which is unfamiliar to the average person. Crawford and Bull (2006) conducted a study which investigated the understanding and misunderstanding of legal words by older children (aged between 12 and 15 years). This study looked at the understanding of 37 words typically used in court demonstrated by a group of school-going teenagers. Findings suggested that all participants identified difficulty with understanding even with words like ‘jury’, ‘defendant’, and ‘cross-examination’.

In another study, researchers were startled to discover that, when it came to key legal words and concepts, 17-year-olds were likely to be confused and mistaken, and only slightly more likely to understand than 13-year-olds – even after the words and concepts had been explained, and even among those who had previous juvenile court experience (Lavigne and Ryboreck, 2011).

Many of the individuals we work with have a limited receptive vocabulary. If someone finds it difficult to understand the words being used in court this will negatively impact their understanding of evidence, legal discussion and legal advice provided in meetings with their legal team.

Individuals without language difficulties are often able to recognise when they have misunderstood or do not understand legal language and therefore may ask their counsel to explain this further. However, individuals with language difficulties may find it hard to do this, especially in a courtroom where there is increased formality.

It is crucial to note that it is not just court vocabulary that individuals may struggle with. Someone with a receptive language difficulty may not understand words which we think everybody understands. For example, a lawyer once asked his client to indicate when he did not know the meaning of something. The client nodded. However, when the intermediary checked the client’s understanding of the word ‘indicate’, the client explained that they did not understand what this meant.

Receptive language

Being able to rapidly process and accurately retain syntax (the grammar of speech) is essential to understanding legal proceedings. Many people with receptive language difficulties process syntax incorrectly, resulting in poor understanding or misunderstanding. They may have difficulty holding words in mind in order to process and ‘decode’ them. Another common difficulty, for example, is switching reversible position words. For instance, switching the position of the names in the following sentence, dramatically alters its meaning:  “Cressida was screaming at James” vs “James was screaming at Cressida”.

People with receptive language difficulties may also have an impaired auditory working memory capacity. Someone’s auditory working memory capacity is the amount of information they can ‘hold on to’ whilst working out the meaning of the sentence. If a person is given too much information at once, this capacity gets overloaded. An example of overload would be when given directions, or a long list of things to buy at the shops. If a person has a low auditory working memory capacity, they will have difficulties following proceedings especially if the information presented is complex and delivered at a fast pace.

Much of the syntax used in a court setting is complex and formal. Legal professionals may speak rapidly, using multiple clauses and complex sentence structures. This can make it very challenging for an individual with a receptive language difficulty to process and retain verbal information accurately. Many people with receptive language difficulties will struggle to process verbally presented information. This difficulty is exacerbated if they are unable to understand the words which are being used in court (a reduced receptive vocabulary). Individuals may find it hard to retain key bits of information from what they hear in court and therefore may find it difficult to give instructions to their counsel in conference. 

Receptive language difficulties affect individuals with a range of diagnoses including Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), Cognitive Communication Disorder (CCD – often following a brain injury), autism, aphasia (often following a stroke) and learning disabilities.

What is DLD?

DLD is a type of speech, language and communication need which affects the way children understand and use language. People with DLD may struggle to interpret sentence structure and therefore receive message of the sentence inaccurately. In some cases, processing words in the incorrect order could alter the meaning of the information. For example, “I had my dog walked” has a different meaning to, “I had walked my dog”. Therefore, in court, this will have an effect on a service user’s overall understanding of the language being presented to them.

Giving evidence

Strong receptive and expressive language skills are required at all stages of legal proceedings. A service user’s evidence, however, can be one of the most demanding aspects upon their receptive and expressive language. When somebody is giving evidence, it is crucial that they are able to understand the question that is being put to them in order for them to have a fair chance of putting their side of the story across. However, the types of questions which get asked in a courtroom setting are often complicated in structure and content and can lead to people with receptive difficulties becoming confused or answering without a full understanding of the question.

Some examples of question structures which someone with a receptive language difficulty may struggle with include:

  • Questions preceded by preamble

When a barrister asks a question, it often contains preamble and information which is redundant. If someone has difficulties with their auditory working memory, they are likely to struggle with questions which are unnecessarily long. For example, Questions that start with “I suggest to you that… I believe you told us that… Isn’t it a fact that…” are complex sentence structures and likely to be problematic.

  • Interrogative statements

A typical cross examination approach is to put a case using interrogative statements, for example, “You knew he would be at the pub that night?”. This question type expresses a question as a statement and invites agreement.

Some individuals with receptive language difficulties will not always recognise that a response is required from a statement. Some individuals are particularly suggestible and therefore may agree with a statement. For example, ‘It was raining’ would be better rephrased as, ‘Was it raining?’

  • Questions containing negatives

People with receptive language difficulties sometimes find questions containing negatives hard to process. These questions can end up being less reliable for getting accurate information. For example, “Didn’t he go with you?”, “I do not doubt that…” , can be rephrased as, “Did he go with you?.

  • Questions containing tags.

An example of a tag question is, ‘It’s raining, isn’t it?’. These questions are linguistically complex and can be very difficult for people with receptive language difficulties. This question could be rephrased as, ‘Is it raining?’.

  • Questions containing multiple parts.

Questions which are asked in court can often be very long. This poses a significant difficulty for those people with receptive language difficulties who have difficulties with their auditory working memory. For example, I worked with someone who was asked, “Did you go to the shops with Annie and then go to the cinema?”. The individual answered “No”. However, when this question was broken down to say, “Did you go the shops with Annie?”, he replied “Yes”. When he was then asked, “Did you then go to the cinema?”, he replied, “No”.

This person had been unable to hold all of the information in their head and therefore only answered one part of the question. They also required it to be broken down into separate questions before being able to answer this question correctly.

Expressive language in court

When someone goes to court, they are required to use their expressive language skills to give instructions to those representing them and to tell their side of the story when they are giving evidence. Within court proceedings, an individual is expected to be able to clearly communicate under significant pressure and answer questions in a way that also requires them to remember legal advice.

A study by Lavigne and Ryboreck (2011), conducted on criminal proceedings, found that language deficits limit a person’s ability to:

  • provide their lawyer with vital background information and factual information about the case.
  • convey important details.
  • construct a narrative.

These expressive language difficulties can interfere with a lawyer’s ability to understand their client’s defence and any potential mitigating factors they need to put forward on their behalf. An American Judge called Judge Jack Weinstein recently said: “effective assistance of counsel is impossible unless the client can provide his or her lawyer with intelligible and informed input”.

Individuals may not possess the necessary vocabulary needed to express themselves. Individuals may feel the pressure of being in a formal environment and feel the need to speak ‘proper’. For example, using words and syntactic constructions which they are much less familiar with. This could result in them using vocabulary which they do not fully understand the meaning of and therefore could have a detrimental effect on their evidence. A person I worked with was once asked to describe his state of mind at the time of the crime he was being accused of committing. He stated, “I felt on edge”. When cross examined further, he was unable to provide more of an insight into his thoughts and feelings at the time of the crime because he did not possess the expressive vocabulary to do so.

Some individuals may find it very difficult to stay focussed when they are asked questions. Sometimes their answers may become very tangential, verbose, and lengthy. They may have specific topics that they want to talk about and therefore may find it difficult to answer the specific question. Conversely, some individuals may struggle to give detailed responses and instead provide one-word answers to questions. In both of these instances, listeners may have difficulty gaining the relevant information needed.

Narrative discourse refers to the ability to structure information units so that the story is told to a listener in a logical way. Being able to give a narrative is of significant importance in a courtroom setting as it means a person is able to tell their side of the story. It is closely connected to many cognitive and linguistic skills (Paul et al., 1996) and therefore, narrative competence is strongly associated with language competence. Research has found that people with speech language and communication needs frequently lack the ability to provide narrative information in a logical and sequential manner (Humber & Snow, 2001) and in a way that meets the needs of the listener (Snow and Powell 2005).

Another challenge people with expressive vocabulary difficulties may experience is with word retrieval, also known as a ‘word finding’ difficulty. This difficulty occurs when a person knows and understands a particular word but has difficulty retrieving it and using it in their utterance. It is similar to when we feel that a word (for example someone’s name) is on the tip of our tongue. These difficulties can cause significant challenges for someone when they are giving instructions. Word finding difficulties can typically be found in individuals who have aphasia. This diagnosis results from damage or injury to the language parts of the brain (e.g., stroke). However, it is important to note that word finding difficulties are not restricted to just those who have had significant brain damage.

How can we help?

Receptive language

If somebody struggles to understand figurative language, they may have difficulties with a phrase like, ‘in a nutshell’. This breakdown in communication can be avoided by using clear  language and avoiding figurative language where possible.

It is really important to be aware of the vocabulary used within a courtroom setting. Providing simplified explanations of unfamiliar legal or court-specific vocabulary and using simple and everyday words eg, ‘live’ instead of ‘reside’ will help to ensure someone is able to effectively engage in their proceedings. Visual aids can be used alongside these explanations to support someone’s understanding.

For those who struggle with retention and memory, keep your sentences short and imagine you are speaking in bullet points. Breaking down larger volumes of verbally presented information into smaller ‘chunks’ may help assist someone with receptive language difficulties as it reduces the volume of information that they need to process and retain at any one time. Conferences at the start of the day, as well as during proceedings, are a very good way of ensuring that a person is able to understand what is going on. They can also be used to recap key information heard in court.

It is crucial to monitor a person’s understanding of questions throughout proceedings, to ensure that they are following discussions and able to engage effectively within their trial/hearing. To help someone to process each part of what you are saying, speak slowly and allow the individual plenty of time so they are not rushed.

Expressive language

If a person says something unclear, clarify this information by repeating back your understanding of what they said to avoid misunderstandings. 

If a person presents with word finding difficulties, allow them extra time to form their responses, without interruption and encourage them to take their time. The intermediary can create a visual aid which may assist with these difficulties. For example, I once worked with a service user who had significant word finding difficulties. During a conference beforehand, we created a simple spider diagram (See below). The service user was able to take into court with her and use during conferences. This spider diagram had a space in the middle to represent the target word and lots of different questions round the side which would help prompt her to retrieve the word that she was trying to say.

Visual aids can also be used to help support someone’s ability to form a clear narrative. For example, writing down the current topic of discussion may help an individual to stay and topic and avoid becoming tangential. I once worked with an individual who found it very difficult to stay focussed. A helpful strategy I used with her was to use a clear visual prompt (eg, holding up a hand) and to remind her of the topic under discussion.

When individuals have difficulties adding details to their answers, it can sometimes be helpful to use simple WH prompt question (Where, What, Why) to support them in telling their side of the story.

I often ask people to clarify the meaning of a word that they have used if it appears inappropriate or out of context, to ensure that they understand what it means.

Keeping a clear chronology when asking questions as this will help assist people to provide an account in a logical and coherent way.

Putting the pieces together

Difficulties with language (receptive and expressive) eg, vocab and syntax, are only one piece of the puzzle and many other factors such as pragmatics, social communication, speech, and attention all come into play.

Receptive and expressive language are different. Competence in one should not be assumed because someone has competence in another. People with many different difficulties can have either expressive or receptive language. One particular way that people with these difficulties can be assisted, is through the appointment of an intermediary for their court proceedings, who can explore the specific difficulties they have and make recommendations to assist both the individual and the court to communicate with each other.  


Crawford E, & Bull R. 2006. Teenagers’ difficulties with key words regarding the criminal court process, Psychology, Crime & Law, 12:6, 653-667, DOI: 10.1080/10236190500489970

LaVigne M, & Van Rybroek GJ. 2011. Breakdown in the language zone: The prevalence of language impairments among juvenile and adult offenders and why it matters. UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy 15(1):37–124. [Google Scholar]

Paul R, Hernandez R, Taylor L, Johnson Narrative development in late talkers: Early school age. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research. 1996;39:1295–1303. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

Humber E & Snow P.C. 2001. The oral language skills of young offenders: A pilot investigation, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 8:1, 1-11, DOI: 10.1080/13218710109524999

Snow, P. C., & Powell, M. B. (2005). What’s the story? An exploration of narrative language abilities in male juvenile offenders. Psychology, Crime & Law, 11(3), 239–253.