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Growing up in a home where two languages are spoken is not associated with language delay. A child learning English as a second language might be slower than other children at first, but will generally catch up.
Children learn language at different rates. But if children miss language development milestones by a long way, they are regarded as having a language delay.

What is a language delay?

A language delay is when children have trouble:

  • saying first words or learning words
  • putting words together to make sentences
  • building their vocabulary
  • understanding words or sentences.

Some language delays are associated with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome or hearing impairment. Many occur on their own.

Language delay, language disorder or speech disorder?

A language delay is different from a speech disorder or language disorder.

A speech disorder is when children have difficulty pronouncing the sounds in words. This can make their speech difficult to understand. Children with a speech disorder might have language skills that are otherwise good. That is, they understand words and sentences well and can form sentences correctly. 

If a child has a language delay that doesn’t go away, it might be a sign of a language disorder. A language disorder is characterised by significant delays in learning to talk and understand language.

Children with speech disorders do not necessarily have a language delay, but they can have both.

If you’re concerned about the way your child pronounces words (for example, saying ‘tat’ instead of ‘cat’), you can read more about speech (sound) disorders.

When to get help for language delay

Children develop language at different rates. So comparing your child to other children of the same age might not help you to identify whether your child has a language delay.

It’s best to seek professional advice if you see any of the following signs in your child at different ages.

By 12 months
Your child is not trying to communicate with you (using sounds, gestures and/or words), particularly when needing help or wanting something.

By 2 years
Your child:

  • isn’t saying about 50 different words
  • isn’t combining two or more words together – for example, ‘More drink’, ‘Mum up’
  • isn’t producing words spontaneously – that is, your child only copies words or phrases from others
  • doesn’t seem to understand simple instructions or questions – for example, ‘Get your shoes’, ‘Want a drink?’, ‘Where’s Daddy?’

Note: at the age of two, about one in five children shows signs of having a language delay. Many of these children will catch up as they get older. Some will continue to have trouble with language.

At about 3 years
Your child:

  • isn’t combining words into longer phrases or sentences – for example, ‘Help me Mummy’, ‘Want more drink’
  • doesn’t seem to understand longer instructions or questions – for example, ‘Get your shoes and put them in the box’, ‘What do you want to eat for lunch today?’
  • takes little or no interest in books
  • isn’t asking questions.

At any age
Your child:

  • has been diagnosed with a hearing loss, developmental delay or syndrome in which language might be affected – for example, autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, or other less known syndromes like Fragile X, Landau-Kleffner and Klinefelter
  • stops doing things she used to do – for example, she stops talking.
Children having difficulties with language should get help as early as possible. You’re the best judge of your child’s language development. If you’re concerned, trust your instincts and seek help from a professional. If this professional isn’t concerned about your child, but you’re still worried, seek another opinion.

Where to get help for language delay

If you think your child is having trouble with language, talk to a professional – for example:

Speech pathologists
A speech pathologist will assess your child’s understanding and use of language. The speech pathologist might use language tests designed to get your child to use words or to see how your child responds to requests, commands or questions.

The speech pathologist might ask you questions about how your child understands and uses language at home. You’ll also be asked about your child’s background – for example, when your child first started using words, when your child walked, whether your child was premature, and about your family, especially whether anyone has had a language delay or language problems.

If a language delay is suspected, the speech pathologist might suggest some therapy sessions, either one-on-one with you, or in a group where your child takes part in language activities alongside other children.

You’ll find speech pathologists who work with young children at community health centres, hospitals and private practices. You don’t usually need a referral, but talk to a GP or your child and family health nurse if you need help finding a speech pathologist. You can also visit Speech Pathology Australia’s Find a Speech Pathologist page.

If you think your child might have a hearing impairment, it’s best to have your child’s hearing checked by a professional such as an audiologist.

If your child does have hearing loss, the audiologist can tell you how your child’s hearing could be interfering with language development and communication.

Causes of language delay

We don’t know what causes language delay in most cases. But we do know there’s likely to be a genetic or biological component.

Language delay is more likely for:

  • boys
  • children who have a close family member with a history of a language delay or communication disorder
  • children who have a developmental disorder or syndrome in which language delay is a typical feature – for example, Down syndrome
  • children with ongoing hearing problems and ear infections.
Sometimes, delays in communication skills can be signs of more serious developmental disorders including hearing impairment, developmental delay, intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder.  You know your child better than anyone else. If you have a concern, talk to your GP or a health professional.
  • Last updated or reviewed 20-02-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Associate Professor Jennifer Hudson, Centre for Emotional Health, Department of Psychology, Macquarie University.