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Communication Problems

Why does communication break down?

Effective verbal communication requires skills in the use of:

The integrated functioning of these allows us to participate in conversations. Conversations are highly collaborative interactions in which the participants rapidly alternate between speaking and listening. The participants are able to produce quick phrases, expletives (such as wow!, oh no!), interjections (such as hang on a minute, stop right there!) and to pass messages. Of course, all of this presupposes that the persons have a need to talk, that they are motivated to do so, and that they have the self-confidence to engage in conversation.

Good verbal communication may, however, break down for a variety of reasons:

Learning difficulty

As speech and the social use of language are learned skills, any impediment in the ability to learn may result in a communication difficulty:
  • Brain damage and certain psychological difficulties are known to interfere with learning.
  • A general learning disability, in which the person’s cognitive processes are disrupted, is also likely to result in a communication difficulty.

Anatomical impairments

  • Speech may be affected by anatomical impairments such as a cleft palate.
  • In addition, certain neurological conditions such as motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy can disrupt speech through partial or complete paralysis of the vocal apparatus – the tongue, soft palate, facial muscles, vocal folds (vocal cords) and breathing mechanism.
  • A hearing impairment may also lead to both speech and language difficulties.
  • Similarly, other sensory impairments may affect communication, e.g. a visual impairment can mean that a participant may be unable to perceive a speaker’s non-verbal communication (body language).
  • Certain diseases, such as the growth of tumors and muscle wasting conditions such as muscular dystrophy, may lead to communication breakdown. They can interfere with the strength, range and rapidity of movement of vocal apparatus muscles.
  • Accidents and other traumas, such as inhaling corrosive fumes that affect any part of the vocal apparatus, including the brain, can also result in a communication difficulty.

Psychological impairments

  • Emotional difficulties such as anxiety and phobia affect a person’s general sense of well-being and may adversely impact their ability to participate in social interactions and conversation.
  • Emotional difficulties are often identified as the cause of voice difficulties and an inability to speak fluently (stuttering).


Finally, people require opportunities to talk. If these are not forthcoming this can severely impede the development and maintenance of appropriate communication skills. This can be, for example, an issue for elderly persons who live alone.

When does communication break down?

The time in a person’s life history when the various causes of communication breakdown take effect will differ:
  • Some causes are congenital, i.e. they have existed since birth. Examples include cerebral palsy, cleft palate and some general learning disabilities.
  • Other causes are developmental, i.e. the child exhibits slow maturation and delayed development. Often we do not know the reason why a child’s development is delayed. A slowly developing child may pass through each expected stage on the path to developing speech and language competency except that they achieve the various milestones several months, or years, behind their peers. The resulting communication difficulty is, therefore, referred to as a communication delay (see speech delay and language delay). In contrast, some children may omit certain anticipated steps in the acquisition of effective communication skills. They continue to make slow progress but the pattern of their development does not follow the typical developmental model, i.e. the pattern of development is disordered. The resultant communication difficulty is, therefore, referred to as a communication disorder (see, for example, speech disorder).
  • The third type of cause is acquired, i.e. the person had never experienced a communication difficulty up to a certain point in their life when some specific event took place that caused a difficulty. Such events might include a head injury, a stroke or a psychotic episode.