Children learn language at different rates. But if children miss language development milestones by a long way, they are regarded as having a language delay.

What is a language delay?

A language delay is when children have speaking and understanding difficulties that are unusual for their age. These might be difficulties with:

  • saying first words or learning words
  • putting words together to make sentences
  • building vocabulary
  • understanding words or sentences.

Some language delays are associated with conditions like autism spectrum disorderDown syndrome or hearing impairment. Many happen on their own.

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. And not all children who have language delay have problems with speech.

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 
Your child:

  • 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 
Your child:

  • 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 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 
Your child:

  • has been diagnosed with a hearing loss, developmental delay or syndrome in which language might be affected – for example, autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, or other syndromes like Fragile X, Landau-Kleffner and Klinefelter
  • 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:

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 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.

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:

  • boys
  • 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 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 delayintellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder.  You know your child better than anyone else. If you’re worried, talk to your GP or a health professional.

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Last updated or reviewed
27-11-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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