Late Talkers: What you can do if your toddler isn’t talking yet

Do you have a child that’s not talking yet? Are you worried that they should be? Well, they may just be what you call a late talker, and it is actually  more common than many think.

Speech and Language Therapist Mary Pat O’Malley is here today to answer your questions about “Late Talkers”.

Mary Pat has previously written other articles for Bilingual Kidspot including:
Bilingual Kids and Language Development
Bilingual Kids with Developmental Delay

In this article the following questions will be answered:

What is a late talker?
When is a child considered a late talker?
How common is late talking and do children grow out of it?
Why do some children talk later than others?
Is my child a late talker because they speak more than one language?
When should I see a Speech Therapist / Pathologist?
What can I do to help my late talker?

Late Talkers

You’re wondering if your child is late to talk and you want reliable information on what’s it’s all about. In this post, I’m going to answer your questions about late talking using the most recent and dependable research. Individual people’s experience does differ but if you’re worried, it’s important to acknowledge that feeling and take action.

What is a Late Talker?

First of all, you need to know about comprehension and expression.

Comprehension is what a child understands. You say ‘Get your coat and hat and scarf’ (without pointing to them or without having said ‘We’re going for a walk’) and they go get them for example.

Expression is what they say- the words they use- not how they pronounce them but words and phrases like: mama gone, look mama, birdie and so on.

Leslie Rescorla, a researcher in this area, says expressive language delay is like fever: it’s a symptom found in many conditions like children with hearing loss or cleft palate. That makes diagnosing Later Talkers challenging. But here we’re talking about Late Talkers who don’t have other conditions like autism or Down Syndrome.

When is a child considered a Late Talker?

Basically, children are considered late talkers when they are between 18 and 35 months old, understanding what you say to them BUT they have limited expressive vocabulary. This means that they don’t use a lot of words or a lot or different words and word combinations.

To be considered a late talker, all other areas of development need to be typical- things like their play and when they walked, hearing, and so on. However, life isn’t always as straightforward as the research and some late talkers might have a delay in understanding as well.

What might this look like in your child though?

Well, if your child is 24 months old and does not yet use 50 words, they’d be considered Late Talkers. Elizabeth Peña, another established researcher, says that between 18-20 months, you should expect your child to be using AT LEAST 10 words and those words would be distributed across the languages for bilingual kids. So they might have more words in one language than the other. It’s the total amount you’re interested in.

First words usually come any time from 8 – 15 months depending on what you read.

At first, growth is slow with 18 month old children learning about 10 new words per month. (Don’t get too hung up on the numbers though. There’s so much variation between children when it comes to early language development that there are only rough guides. And it’s also important to think about what they’re using the words for. It’s all about communication- so are they requesting something like tickling to be repeated or stopped, are they protesting, rejecting something, commenting, and so on).

Between 17 & 20 months, there’s a rapid vocabulary spurt as they approach the 50 word mark and they learn several new words daily. Most of the ages and stages that you come across are based on monolingual children but the milestones are similar for bilingual children.

Children make progress at different rates but it is important to see steady progress.

How common is Late Talking?

Again, estimates vary but about 15% of children at the age of 2 present with slow onset and development of their expressive language.

Do children grow out of it?

Another hard question to answer but about 50% of Late Talkers do score in the normal range by age 3 on vocabulary measures and in the normal range of grammar and conversational skills by school age.

Late Bloomers is the name given to children who catch up in the 3-5 year old period. BUT there’s research showing that children who had expressive language delay between 24 and 31 months of age had weaker language skills throughout their adolescence. Even though they had language scores in the average range, they were still performing more poorly than their peers on vocabulary, grammar, and verbal memory. And there’s also research showing that where children have delays in understanding and expression together, they can struggle with learning to read.

You can’t know in advance if your child’s going to be a Late Bloomer. It’s definitely not a good idea to take a chance on the possibility of them growing out of it. It’s hard to predict who will grow out of it and who won’t. The children who are at greatest risk for not growing out of it are those where there’s a family history of language delay, where their comprehension is also delayed, and where they use few gestures.

The best gestures for language development are ones which add meaning. What does that mean? It’s shaking their head while saying ‘water’. In effect they’re saying ‘no water’ or ‘I don’t want water’. The gesture expands the meaning of the word. Shaking your head while saying ‘no’ doesn’t expand the meaning of the word.

Why do some children start to talk later than others?

No clear answer to this question yet- early language development varies from one child to another. But, things that Late Talkers tend to have in common are things like a family history of early language delay, being a boy, being born at less than 85% of their optimal birth weight or at less than 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Is my child a late talker because we speak more than one language?

Definitely not!

More people in the world speak two languages or more but most of the research tends to involve children who speak one language. Your child’s language development is affected by the amount of input they get and the opportunities they have to use the language(s) they have.  But speaking more than one language does not cause even a temporary delay in language development.

What’s important is to profile what languages your child is exposed to, who they speak them with and a rough idea of how much exposure to and use of each language is typical your child.

Please don’t compare the development of your child’s languages to that of other children- for bilingual families, each family is unique and comparisons are not helpful unless the language environment and experience is the same- and that’s unique to each child. And don’t compare them to monolingual children either- it’s not a legitimate comparison.

Elizabeth Peña says bilingualism is like cake. If you make raspberry-apple cake for example, both flavours are unique and together they enhance the flavour of the whole. The cake isn’t one or the other- it’s a unique combination.

When should I see a speech -language pathologist (SLP)?

The Hanen Centre, which is based in Canada, suggests that your child needs to see an SLP if:

A child is 18 months old and not using at least 20 words, including different types of words, such as nouns or names of things (cup, biccie for biscuit), verbs or doing words (eat, go), prepositions or location words (up, down), adjectives or describing words (hot, mine), and social words (hi, bye). They need different types of words so that they can combine them into phrases like want biccie.

Or

A child is 24 month old and they aren’t using at least 100 words and combining 2 words together. The word combinations need to be original. Phrases like Thank you. I want to, all gone, what’s that? are not genuine phrases. They’re chunks that are learned as one unit. Examples of real word combinations come from the child themselves, that they haven’t heard before. Things like: “kitty gone”, or “dirty dress”.

It’s never too early to see an SLP really. We can assess children from a very young age. And it’s better to be referred and not need the referral than need it and be stuck on a waiting list. Please listen to your instinct and ignore comments like ‘Oh he’s too young to see an SLP’. That’s just not true! And the outcomes for children where the diagnosis is made later are not as positive as when the problem is identified early.

Ideally you want an SLP who has experience of working with bilingual families. If that’s not possible, read this post before you go so you’ll be prepared and know what to say.

What can you do to help Late Talkers?

Here are 5 tips

1.Get a referral to an SLP

Preferably one who is experienced in working with multilingual families. Don’t accept advice to drop a language- this suggestion is not supported by any research and is not best practice. Don’t feel under pressure to follow a one person one language approach either, as this isn’t the only or the most effective way to nurture multilingual development and it can feel somewhat unnatural.

Recommended:
Language Strategies for Raising Bilingual Kids

2. Get your child’s hearing checked

Just to make sure it’s as it should be.

3. Set aside 30 minutes a day

If you’re worried that your child’s expressive language is not progressing, set aside some one on one time where your sole focus is on interacting with them.

In this 30 minutes, you want to observe them closely and see what are they interested in? What are they looking at? Playing with? Children’s language develops better when we give them the name for the thing they’re looking at or the action they’re doing than when we try to direct their attention to what we’re interested in.

So it should sound something like: Oh, you’re walking to the sofa. Plop! You sat down! And not like this: Look Jamie, here’s a book. Look at the book. This small action consistently taken will make a difference.

4. Keep a communication diary

Now don’t panic- it doesn’t have to be anything fancy- just somewhere you can write down how they communicate. So it can be they use their whole body- they move away to say I don’t want that. Or they use a word with a gesture like shaking their head and saying No.

You also want to look at what they’re communicating about. These are called communicative intentions and are really important because vocabulary is not enough.

They need experience using the words they’ve got to communicate about what’s important to them. So this includes things like: greeting you when you come home, indicating farewell or goodbye, requesting action like holding his hands up to communicate Pick me up, rejecting something, commenting. These can be done using words or gestures or whole body movements. You want to see new words appearing over the course of a month.

5. Look at books together.

Look is the important word here- you don’t have to read the book to encourage an interest in books and boost language development. You can find 18 ways to make the most of books with your child here and 40 book ideas here here.

If you’d like more tips about speech, language and communication, be sure to sign up at  www.talknua.com.

If you think you have a late talker these related posts on Bilingual Kidspot may be of interest:
Bilingual Kids and Speech Delay
Speech and Language Milestones for Bilingual Kids
Ways to nurture your child’s Language Development

Are you raising a bilingual child? Subscribe for related articles. Follow Bilingual KidSpot on Facebook and join our private discussion group.

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Inspired by
Everitt, A., Hannaford, P., and Conti-Ramsden, T. (2013). Markers for persistent specific expressive language delay in 3-4 year olds. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 48(3): 534-553.
Hawa, V. and Spanoudis, G. (2014) Toddlers with delayed expressive language: an overview of the characteristics, risk factors, and language outcomes. Research Developmental Disabilities 35: 400-407.
Rescorla, L. (2013). Late talkers: do good predictors of outcome exist? Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews 17:141-150.
Zambrana, I., Pons, F., Eadie, P., and Ystrom, E. (2014). Trajectories of language delay from age 3-5: persistence, recovery, and late onset. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 49(3): 304-316.