Is silence always golden? Not speaking by 2 years old - late talkers, should you be worried?

Late talkers

Einstein famously didn’t start talking until he was 3 years old. Other famous late talkers include mathematical genius Ramanujan, a nobel prize winner (Gary Becker), a US talk show host (G. Gordon Liddy) and even Mussolini. Although research papers have used slightly different criteria (in terms of amount of language and the age of the children), it is estimated that 15% of children could be described as ‘late talkers’ (Reilly et al 2014, Levickis and McKean 2014).

So should we be concerned about children who are ‘late talkers’? Do they need extra help? Will they catch up?

What counts as a ‘late’ talker?

If your child hasn’t said their first words at age two, it can be a worrying time for a parent. Late talkers have been defined as children aged 2-3 with only a few (or no) single words. Some researchers and therapists also include children under the age of three who do not join words together to make simple two word sentences (e.g. ‘push car’, ‘bye-bye Mummy’).

Will my child catch up?

But how can a parent know when to be concerned? What’s the difference between being a late talker (who will catch up fine once they start) and a child who might need more help?

Some key points to look out for: What can I do to help?

  • Does your child understand what you say to them? Research has indicated that late talkers who have a good understanding of spoken language are more likely to catch up with their talking (Ellis and Thal 2008). Take a look at the language e-mail course for more information about the developmental stages of understanding language.
  • Is your child attempting to communicate in other ways, such as pointing, gesture, or taking you to the item they want?
  • Is your child enjoying pretend play and spending time with other children? Children who are developing their social skills are less likely to have ongoing spoken language difficulties.

As a parent, you can do lots to help your child learn to talk – the language e-mail course is a great place to start. It contains a lot of helpful tips and activities for you and your child. The help that you provide from an early age will give your child a really positive start. For example, research has shown that the more parents extend their children’s sentences the greater the improvement in the child’s language between age two and three (Levickis and McKean 2014).

However, early identification is also important so that we know whether a child could benefit from more help to develop their communication skills. If you are concerned that your child is not learning to talk at the same rate as other children, a Speech and Language therapy assessment will help to identify whether your child needs further support.

Ellis EM, Thal DJ. (2008) Early language delay and risk for language impairment. Perspect Lang Learn Ed., 15(3): 93-100.

Rosetti, L.M. (1996). Communication intervention: Birth to three. San Diego: Singular Publishing.

much shorter research summary on the same thing

There is evidence to suggest that focused stimulation and modelling of single words can lead to improvements in the language of children with late language emergence (Cable and Domsch 2011 – a systematic review).  Also to look at Reilly et al and Levickis and McKean 2014.

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist

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