Is Your Child a ‘Late Talker’? Or Does She Have a Language Impairment?

Is Your Child a ‘Late Talker’? Or Does She Have a Language Impairment?

Takeaway: Many children struggle to learn language skills, but often for different reasons. Some ‘late talkers’ simply need a bit of extra time to catch up to their peers. But others have more serious language impairments that won’t sort themselves out without the right support. Either way, parents can learn to spot red flags and contact a specialist immediately.

We worry when our children miss key speech milestones, but it’s not always a concern.

Speech is a crucial survival skill. It lets children express their thoughts and feelings, ask adults for help, and become active members of their family, friend group, and the larger community. So, we parents notice (and worry) when our children miss key speech milestones. For instance, we want our children to be cooing and laughing by 5 months, babbling by 7 months, speaking their first words by about 1 year, and using up to 50 words by 1.5 years. But missing these milestones doesn’t necessarily mean something’s wrong.

Often, being a ‘late talker’ is just a sign of a developmental delay.

In many cases, being a ‘late talker’ isn’t a sign of some larger problem. For instance, your child might miss speech milestones but reach all the age-appropriate physical and thinking milestones. (E.g., learning to crawl/walk, throw a ball, solve simple visual puzzles, etc.) Her speech and language skills might be about a year behind her classmates, but they’ll sort themselves out in time. Most late talkers (about 70-80%) have this type of developmental delay, and concerned parents usually cause more problems by jumping in too early to ‘fix’ things.

Sometimes, though, speech delays are part of a larger issue.

Some late talkers have a developmental difference rather than a simple delay. I.e., their brains are ‘wiring’ themselves differently, causing them to function differently, too. Sometimes this alternate wiring affects speech and language alone – i.e., it causes a specific language impairment (SLI). While at other times, it signals a more significant developmental difference, like autism spectrum disorder. Either way, these differences are permanent and won’t sort themselves out in time. And this means your child will need support from a trained specialist.

It’s hard to separate developmental delays from differences unless you know what to look for.

As parents, delays and differences seem alike. For instance, one mother describes how her child (1 year, 9 months old) can’t speak but responds to his name, can follow simple instructions, and attempts to communicate by gesturing and grunting. Also, he seems to understand basic speech and communication because he loves watching TV. So, is this a speech delay or a difference? We can know only by untangling a complex web of receptive language skills (e.g., differentiating the sounds ‘cat’ vs ‘mat’) and expressive language skills (e.g., using grammar to form sentences). And only a speech and language specialist knows how to do this.

Specialists are trained to spot children who ‘get’ fundamental language rules and those who don’t.

Children with speech delays may struggle to speak but seem to ‘get’ fundamental language rules. So, their speech and language mistakes follow a predictable pattern. In contrast, children with specific language impairments don’t get grammar rules like changing tenses, moving from singular to plural, assigning gender, and more. Plus, they struggle with core language logic when trying to ask ‘who, what, when, where, why’ questions. Their mistakes seem more random and don’t follow a predictable pattern – which is something a specialist is trained to spot.

But we parents can pick up the most obvious clues without worrying about these nuances.

As parents, we only need to know a few age-specific red flags to look out for. For instance, is your child not trying to communicate – even if only babbling – by age 2? Or is she not using words by age 3? Or complete sentences (more than 2 words) by age 4? Crucially, do family members struggle to understand what she’s saying? (It’s okay if outsiders struggle, but family members shouldn’t.) And at age 4+, does she have a much smaller vocabulary than their friends? Or does she find it hard to tell/re-tell stories, understand figures of speech, or follow simple instructions?

What matters is to spot these red flags early and immediately consult with a support team.

Unlike language delays, language impairments don’t sort themselves out with time. In fact, they get significantly worse. For example, a 5-year-old might only struggle to narrate stories, but by 9, she’s struggling to spell and read. And by 13, these vocabulary, grammar, and reading issues will make it almost impossible to do well at school. Thankfully, we can change all this by bringing in the right support team early. For instance, a child psychologist and speech/language therapist duo can use standardised tests, in-depth assessments, and follow-up interviews to pinpoint your child’s needs and custom-design a practical support plan.

For more about your options, feel free to call/email us to set up a consultation.

The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.


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