Rhea Paul, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Sacred Heart University
“Einstein didn’t talk until he was four.” “My two-year-old isn’t talking because her big sister talks for her.” “My toddler isn’t talking but he’s had a lot of ear infections. That’s probably why.” Parents often say these things when their toddlers are not saying many words. Should these parents be concerned? The answer isn’t as simple as we might like.
Many toddlers don’t talk much but catch up later. Children who say fewer than 50 different words or who do not put words together by 24 months are late to talk. More than twenty years of research tells us that most late talkers do fine on language tests by age five. Language may never be their strength. Perhaps they will not be in the top reading group. Perhaps they will not edit the school newspaper. But they will not require special educational services. They are likely to graduate from high school. They often go to college if others in their family went to college. They pursue satisfying work and leisure, especially in areas that reflect their strengths.
When should a family worry? Some reasons for concern include:
- Fewer than 50 different words at 30 months
- Little use of word combinations at 30 months
- Difficulty understanding words and short sentences at 30 months
- A family history of communication or learning problems
If you notice these issues, it makes sense to seek an evaluation. It is important to make sure the child can hear, has the motor skills needed to talk, and is developing typically in other ways. If so, intervention that focuses on understanding and saying words and sentences can boost the child’s progress.
Language intervention might lessen, though perhaps not completely prevent, long-term consequences like developmental language disorder (DLD). Language intervention is delivered by a speech-language pathologist. The speech-language pathologist can work directly with the child or coach the parent to use helpful strategies. If the child has delays in addition to talking, a broader team of professionals may be needed. Early intervention reduces the impact of a range of developmental disorders.
The rate of language development in the first two years of life varies a lot. Most children say their first word around 12 months and put words together by 18 months. Other children take a good bit longer. But by 30–36 months, almost all children say lots of words and sentences and understand things adults say. Children who don’t are at risk for DLD, or other forms of developmental disorder. At this age, it is better to be safe than sorry. It is a good idea to evaluate the child’s development and provide the established benefits of early intervention if needed.
- Buschmann, A., Multhauf, B., Hasselhorn, M., & Pietz, J. (2015). Long-term effects of a parent-based language intervention on language outcomes and working memory for late-talking toddlers. Journal of Early Intervention, 37, 175–189.
- Chilosi, A., Pfanner, L. Pecini, C., Salvadorini, R. & Casalini, C. (2019). Which linguistic measures distinguish transient from persistent language problems in Late Talkers from 2 to 4 years? A study on Italian speaking children. Research (Cioni, Inguaggiato, & Sgandurra, 2016), 89, 59–68.
- Cioni, G., Inguaggiato, E., & Sgandurra, G. (2016). Early intervention in neurodevelopmental disorders: Underlying neural mechanisms. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 58, 61–66.
- DeVeney, S. L., Hagaman, J. L., & Bjornsen, A. L. (2017). Parent-implemented versus clinician-directed interventions for late-talking toddlers: A systematic review of the literature. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 39, 293–302.