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Language delay: how can I help?

Posted In Dads, Education, Infant, Moms, Parenting, Parents, Therapy, Toddlers, Young, Your Child - By Moms & To Be On Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 With 0 Comments

What is language delay?

Language delay is a failure to develop language abilities on the usual developmental timetable. It is commonly divided into receptive (what we understand) and expressive (what we say) categories. Both categories are fundamental in order to be able to communicate with others as well as to understand when others communicate with us.

How can I tell if my child has a language delay?

Here are some general milestones to look for in normal speech development:

Age Language Level
0-6 months Babbles
6-12 months Babbles in imitation of real speech, with expression, begin to string sounds together
12 months Says words like “mama” and “dada”, recognizes his name. Says 1-2 words; imitates familiar sounds; able to understand and follow simple one-step directions (“Please give me the toy” for example).
12-18 months Imitates approximate sounds and words modeled by family members, uses 5-20 words, including names
Between 1 and 2 years Understands “no”. Says 50 or more words. By the age of 2, kids are starting to combine two words to make simple sentences, such as “baby crying” or “Daddy big.”
Between 2 and 3 years Combines nouns and verbs; has a large word vocabulary; uses short sentences (three or more words); identifies colors. Knows big and little; understands what it means to “put it on the table” or “put it under the bed.”
Between 3 and 4 years  sentence length of 4-5 words; knows last name, several nursery rhymes
Between 4 and 5 years Sentence length of 4-5 words; uses past tense; identifies colors, shapes; asks many questions like “why?” and “who?”
Between 5 and 6 years Sentence length of 5-6 words; knows spatial relations (like “on top” and “far”); knows address; understands same and different; counts ten things; uses all types of sentences

If your child is not on track with these milestones, a language assessment is advised.

What causes language problems?

Many reasons can lead to language delay. Some of them are physical or physiological, others are environmental.

  • Developmental speech and language disorder is a common reason for speech/language problems in kids. This is a learning disability that is caused by the brain working differently.
  • Hearing loss, easily identified, will definitely cause language delay.
  • Intellectual disability is a common cause of speech and language delay.
  • Extreme environmental deprivation in neglected or abused children; a child who does not hear others speaking will not learn to speak.
  • Prematurity can lead to many kinds of developmental delays, including speech/language problems.
  • Neurological problems like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury can affect the muscles needed for speaking.
  • Autism affects communication. Speech/language/communication problems might be an early sign of autism.

Why is early intervention important?

Language delay is a risk factor for other types of developmental delay, including social, emotional, cognitive delay, and mostly for delayed or inadequate acquisition of reading skills. If a child hasn’t mastered language and speech, it is very difficult for him to learn writing. Treatment should begin before talking age if your child has any risk factors (for example low birth weight) or any of the problems listed above.

What parents can do?

Like so many other things, language development is a mixture of inherited background and stimulation. Genetic makeup will, in part, determine intelligence and language development but it also depends a lot on environment and adequate stimulation. Here are some parenting tips for helping along your child’s language:

  • Start talking to your child at birth. Even newborns benefit from hearing speech.
  • Repeat your baby’s babbling.
  • Play simple games with your baby like peek-a-boo.
  • Listen to your child. Look at them when they talk to you. Give them time to respond.
  • Describe for your child what they are doing, seeing and hearing in the course of the day.
  • Read to your child. Starting as early as 6 months. Look for age-appropriate soft or board books or picture books that encourage kids to look while you name the pictures.
  • Sing to your child and provide them with music. Learning new songs helps your child learn new words, uses memory skills and listening skills.
  • Expand on what your child says. (For example, if your child says, “Barney!”, you can say, “You want Barney!”)
  • Talk a lot to your child. Tell them what you are doing as you do it.
  • Use gestures along with words.
  • Don’t criticize grammar mistakes. Instead, just model good grammar.
  • Play with your child, and talk about the toys and games you are playing.
  • Keep things simple, but never use “baby talk”.

What Speech-Language Therapists Do

In conducting an evaluation, a speech and language therapist will look at a child’s speech and language skills within the context of total development. Besides observing your child, the speech and language therapist will conduct standardized tests and scales, and look for milestones in speech and language development.

The speech and language therapist will also assess:

  • the receptive language
  • the expressive language
  • the non verbal communication skills, such as pointing, head shaking, gesturing, etc.
  • the sound development and clarity of speech.
  • the child’s oral-motor status (how a child’s mouth, tongue, palate, etc. work together for speech as well as eating and swallowing)

If the speech and language therapist finds that your child needs speech therapy, your involvement will be very important. You can observe therapy sessions and learn to participate in the process. The therapist will show you how you can work with your child at home to improve speech and language skills.


Rana Asmar Achkar

Speech and language therapist

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