What is a language delay?
A language delay is when a child has difficulties understanding and/or using spoken language. These difficulties are unusual for the child’s age.
The difficulties might be with:
- saying first words or learning words
- putting words together to make sentences
- building vocabulary
- understanding words or sentences.
Language delay, speech disorder or developmental language disorder?
A language delay is different from a speech disorder or developmental language disorder.
A speech (sound) 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 the right way.
If a child has a language delay that doesn’t go away, it might be a sign of a developmental language disorder. Children with a developmental language disorder have difficulties understanding and/or speaking. These difficulties affect their everyday lives.
Children with speech disorders don’t necessarily have language delay or developmental language disorder. And not all children who have language delay have problems with speech.
Children raised in bilingual families might start off learning their languages more slowly than children speaking only one language. This isn’t considered language delay. School-age bilingual children can learn to read and write English just as well as their peers.
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 know 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 isn’t trying to communicate with you using sounds, gestures and/or words, particularly when needing help or wanting something.
By 2 years
- 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?’ or ‘Where’s Daddy?’
By two years, about one in five children shows signs of having language delay. These children are sometimes called ‘late talkers’. Many of them will catch up as they get older. But some will continue to have trouble with language.
At about 3 years
- isn’t combining words into longer phrases or sentences – for example, ‘Help me Mummy’ or ‘Want more drink’
- doesn’t seem to understand longer instructions or questions – for example, ‘Get your shoes and put them in the box’ or ‘What do you want to eat for lunch today?’
- takes little or no interest in books
- isn’t asking questions.
From 4-5 years and older
Some children still have difficulties with language by the time they start preschool or school. If these difficulties can’t be explained by other things like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or hearing loss, it might be developmental language disorder.
Children with developmental language disorder:
- struggle to learn new words and make conversation
- use short, simple sentences, and often leave out important words in sentences
- respond to just part of an instruction
- struggle to use past, present or future tense the right way – for example, they say ‘skip’ instead of ‘skipped’ when talking about activities they’ve already done
- find it hard to use the right words when talking and might use general words like ‘stuff’ or ‘things’ instead
- might not understand the meaning of words, sentences or stories.
At any age
- has been diagnosed with a hearing loss, developmental delay or syndrome in which language might be affected – for example, ASD and Down syndrome, or other syndromes like Fragile X
- stops doing things she used to do – for example, she stops talking.
Children having difficulties with language need help as early as possible. You’re the best judge of your child’s language development. If you’re concerned, trust your instincts and speak with your GP, child and family health nurse, your child’s teacher or a speech pathologist. 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:
- teachers or educators at your child care centre, preschool or school
- a speech pathologist
- an audiologist
- a GP or paediatrician
- a child and family health nurse
- a psychologist.
If you think your child’s main problem is understanding and using language, you might want to visit a speech pathologist. Speech pathologists can use language tests to assess how your child uses words and responds to requests, commands or questions.
If you think your child might be hard of hearing or have a hearing impairment, it’s best to have your child’s hearing checked by an audiologist. Hearing loss could interfere with your child’s language development and communication.
Support for children with language delay
If your child is diagnosed with language delay, the health professional you’re working with might recommend group programs that build language skills. The professional might also help your child develop other ways to communicate, like using picture boards or books.
The professional might give you strategies that you can use at home to help your child communicate. This might include giving your child lots of time to begin a conversation. You can also help your child by responding and expanding on his efforts to communicate, whether it’s with words, actions or sounds.
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. That is, language delay might run in families.
Language delay is more likely for:
- 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 like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or 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 ASD. You know your child better than anyone else. If you’re worried, talk to your GP or a health professional.