Late Talkers, Speech and Language Delays | A Growing Understanding

Understanding the Difference Between Late-Talker, Speech and Language Delay

Should I Be Worried?

Every child is unique and will develop at their own pace. But as a parent, noticing differences between siblings and peers can often cause you to worry about your child’s development, particularly when it comes to language and communication skills. Comparing your child to others is completely normal. We all do it, and it is one of the best ways to stay alert and aware of any challenges. But it is important to also be informed about what constitutes as a challenge or delay.

My team and I are often presented with questions like: “My mother-in-law (or other well-meaning relative) thinks my child needs speech therapy, but I am not sure. How do I know if my child needs assistance or is just a late-talker?” The simple answer from our perspective is this: If you are ever concerned, speak to a speech pathologist. We have the skills and knowledge to advise what you should or shouldn’t be worried about.

But, for those who have turned to Google, searched ‘my toddler is not talking yet’, and found responses from other concerned parents that have been told to “just wait and see” and the old adage of “boys talk later”; I’d like to shed some light on the difference between late-talking, speech and language delay, and what you can do to help your toddler develop language and communication skills.

Is My Toddler a Late-Talker?

According to The Hanen Centre, “a late-talker is a toddler (between 18-30 months) who has good understanding of language, typically developing play skills, motor skills, thinking skills, and social skills, but has a limited spoken vocabulary for his or her age.”

Children who are late talkers will often have trouble with spoken or expressive language. While they understand instructions, and can point at objects etc, they may not be able to verbally express their wants and needs, or perhaps are less clear in producing common speech sounds.

What is Speech and Language Delay?

Speech delay is like ‘late-talking’. A toddler may understand what you are saying but may struggle with the mechanisms that produce speech. Distinct from language, speech relates to verbal expression and includes articulation (the way sounds and words are formed).

Language refers to the entire system of giving and getting information in a meaningful way. It’s our understanding and ability to be understood through communication (verbal, nonverbal, and written).

While speech and language are two independent development stages, they often overlap. For example, a child with a speech delay might use words and phrases to express ideas but be difficult to understand. Conversely, a child with a language delay might pronounce words well but only be able to put two words together.

When it comes to late-talking, speech and language delays, knowing where your child is up to in relation to milestones can help you to understand if there is a challenge.

Understanding Speech and Language Milestones

The following basic milestones can help you determine if there is cause for concern, or if your child is developing at an appropriate rate (according to The Hanen Centre). For more detailed information on speech sound development and intelligibility, download our FREE Speech Sound Milestones Resource.

  • 18 month olds should use at least 20 words, including different types of words, such as nouns (“baby”, “cookie”), verbs (“eat”, “go”), prepositions (“up”, “down”), adjectives (“hot”, “sleepy”), and social words (“hi”, “bye”).
  • 24 month olds should use at least 100 words and combine 2 words together. These word combinations should be generated by the child, and not be combinations that are “memorised chunks” of language, such as “thank you”, “bye bye”, “all gone”, or “What’s that?”. Examples of true word combinations would be “doggie gone”, “eat cookie”, or “dirty hands”.

Many people like to believe that late talkers will ‘grow out of it’, particularly if their child is progressing well in other areas. While many children do ‘catch up’ on their own, your child may not. And in the mean time they are struggling to communicate with you and growing more frustrated.

While milestones can help guide your decisions in relation to external support, it is important to consider other factors that could prevent your child from developing appropriate speech and language skills, including:

  • quiet as an infant; little babbling
  • a history of ear infections
  • limited number of consonant sounds (eg. p, b, m, t, d, n, y, k, g, etc.)
  • does not link pretend ideas and actions together while playing
  • does not imitate (copy) words
  • uses mostly nouns (names of people, places, things), and few verbs (action words)
  • difficulty playing with peers (social skills)
  • a family history of communication delay, learning or academic difficulties
  • a mild comprehension (understanding) delay for his or her age
  • uses few gestures to communicate

What Should I Do?

As parents the most important thing we can do is pay attention. And if you notice something that ignites even the slightest worry, it is never too early to seek assistance. We know that the earlier we start to help children, the better their outcomes, so, the first thing to do is trust yourself. Know that it is ok to not always have the answers and seek the assistance you need via the following steps:

  • Talk to a speech pathologist about your concerns, and assess firstly if you need to embark on a speech pathology journey, and if so, what that might look like for your child.
  • Have your child’s hearing evaluated. Even if you think your child is hearing just fine, it is important to make sure they are hearing sounds at a variety of volumes and pitches. Even slight hearing impairments can cause difficulties with speech and language development.
  • Don’t panic. This is perhaps an important step to keep in mind. Parents often feel overwhelmed when their child is faced with a challenge. Remember, you have support. Your GP, paediatrician, family, and of course your speech pathologist, are there to guide you through these challenges and provide you with the support, understanding and advice you and your child need to grow.

You Can Also Help Your Toddler Develop Speech and Language Skills at Home

Encouraging speech and language development at home can be fun, engaging and good bonding time for you are your child. The following are just a few of our ideas:

Communicate with Your Child

This might seem obvious, but it can also be something we, as parents, forget to do. We often know what our child is trying to say, but instead of just acting on your own knowledge, try and encourage your child to be more specific with their need and offer them the words they might be looking for. Also, simply spending time singing, chatting and encouraging imitation sounds and gestures is a great place to start, even with infants.

Read to Your Child

The benefits of reading to and with your child are endless. They can learn new words, new concepts, the structure of storytelling, imaginative ideas, and more. Choose age-appropriate books like soft cover books with textures and large pictures for young children. These pictures will encourage the child to look on while you read, and even encourages them to interact with the book i.e. patting the soft fur in ‘That’s Not My Teddy’. As they grow, you can introduce nursery rhymes or other books that have rhythmic appeal. Predictable books are also a good choice as they encourage your child to anticipate what might happen, and they even may start to memorise their favourites.

Use Everyday Situations

You can build your child’s vocabulary by talking your way through your day. I’ve had clients tell me that they often feel like they have a ‘life narrator’ that is telling a truly boring story. But in those boring moments, your child can learn so much. For example, you could name all the foods you put into the trolley at the supermarket and encourage your child to join in with the ones they know. You could also talk about the steps you take when you are making a meal or tidying the house. Pointing out the sounds you hear and the sights you see when you are out and about can really widen your child’s understanding of words.

If you are concerned about your child’s development, talk to us today. Our friendly team of experienced speech pathologists are here to guide you through your concern and help you take the best next step.

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