Language delays in children are a cause of much frustration and worry for parents. Often this anxiety is unnecessary, as these children catch up with peers in their own time. In some situations however, delayed language can be a longer-term issue or can indicate other underlying problems; hearing loss, a language processing disorder or other developmental delays. Delayed language can also lead to behavioural problems if a child feels frustrated by their inability to communicate.

How do I know if my child has a language delay?

The internationally-recognised Hanen Centre, which specialises in helping children with language delays, outlines the following warning signs:

If your child by:

12 months 

  • doesn’t babble with changes in tone dadadadadadadad
  • doesn’t use gestures like waving for bye or shaking head for no
  • doesn’t respond to their own name
  • doesn’t communicate in some way (gestures, grunting) if they need help with something

15 months    

  • doesn’t respond to or understand words like ‘no’ and ‘up’
  • does not say any words
  • does not point to objects when asked “Where’s the …?”

18 months    

  • doesn’t understand simple commands like ‘don’t touch’
  • isn’t using at least 20 words like ‘Dad’ or ‘No’
  • doesn’t respond with a word or gesture to a question like “What’s that?”

24 months  

  • says fewer than 100 words
  • isn’t joining words together like “Daddy go” or “shoes on”
  • doesn’t imitate actions or words

30 months    

  • says fewer than 300 words
  • isn’t using action words like ‘run’, ‘eat’ or ‘fall’
  • isn’t using some adult grammar like “two dogs” or “I running

3 years  

  • isn’t asking questions
  • isn’t using full sentences such as; “I don’t like it” or “That bus is red.”

What to do if you are concerned

If concerned, you need to contact your GP and organise a hearing check as soon as possible.   There are often waiting lists for hearing checks and then, if further referrals are necessary to speech therapists or paediatricians, you could face more waiting lists. Getting started early in this system is important. It is far better to cancel unnecessary appointments later on because your child’s language skills have ‘caught up’, than start the process late and potentially miss out on help from early intervention services.

language delay

What to do while you are waiting

You do not need to wait for expert advice, or for your child to be officially diagnosed with a language delay, before starting to help your child. Speech language therapists recommend using everyday interactions to build your child’s communication skills. Being mindful of eight basic principles of language learning during these interactions, can turn conversations into effective speech therapy.

  1. The first and most important rule is ‘talk more, ask less’

Many parents make the mistake of trying to draw words out of their children by asking lots of questions and getting them to endlessly repeat words. The more effective approach is to feed words to your child by commenting on their activities. This provides the child with useful language for things they are interested in.

For eg. “Wow you’ve got a bus. It’s driving up and down. Brrrm Brrrm”

Rather than: “What have you got? It’s a bus. Can you say bus? Say bus, good girl”.

Pressuring children to speak using questions and repetition can make them feel like they are being constantly tested. For children struggling with language this can be very demotivating, causing them to speak even less. Communication is far more likely to happen when your child is relaxed and motivated.

  1. Talk to them all the time, but don’t forget to listen

Talking to your child about their activities, your activities, and the world around is a sure way to feed in lots of language. The more you talk, the more opportunities they have to hear language and learn. Listening is important too, so don’t forget to leave time for them to comment or copy you, and be ready to wait longer than you would for an adult to reply. It may feel ‘unnatural’ or ‘uncomfortable’ offering a running commentary on life, but it will help your child to be in a language-rich environment.

  1. Use simple and grammatical language

You should aim to keep your language at the right level for your child, but grammatically correct. As a rule of thumb, when responding to your child only add one or two extra words to their utterance. For example if they are speaking in single words, then your responses should only be two to three words long (words like ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’ do not count as words in this case)

For eg. The child says: “bus”

The parent says: “It’s a big bus” or “The bus goes brrrmm.”

If the child is not speaking yet, but indicating things through gesture or babbling, then offer a one-word response (see point 4 on which type of words to use).

Avoid using baby talk, such as; “Baby go night-night”. It is important that children get a grammatically correct model to copy. Instead you could say; “Baby is going to bed. Good night baby”.

  1. Focus on ‘useful’ language

During interactions with your child you will naturally introduce lots of new words. Children with language delays cannot take in too many words at once so it is important to discriminate which words are most useful to focus on. In general children learn different types of words at different stages of development. So early language learners need naming words (nouns) like ‘bus’, before action words ‘drive’ or describing words ‘fast’. They can then move on to position words ‘on’ or ‘under’, before being encouraged to use correct grammar ‘I am running’ rather than “I running”. ‘Functional’ language that helps with everyday communication like; ‘more’, ‘finish’, ‘my turn’, ‘drink’, ‘help’ etc. can also be introduced at the earliest stage.

To help children remember new words you need to clearly show them the meaning by using an object, picture or context, or by demonstrating through actions. You need to stress the new word when using it, emphasising it in the sentence (“There’s a BUS”). Then YOU repeat it as often as you can, and resist the urge to pressure your child to repeat it. Instead, allow them to say it in their own time and encourage any attempts to imitate you.

  1. Use books, songs and rhymes

Reading picture books, singing songs and repeating nursery rhymes are all valuable ways of feeding language to your child. The repetitive nature of picture books, songs and rhymes make them a powerful tool, helping children remember words and exposing them to the rhythm and intonation of language. These activities are also fun, making language learning more motivating for the child.

  1. Don’t over-correct children’s language

When learning, children are going to make language errors. It is important not to focus on these errors at the expense of the child’s message. You want to encourage children to talk more, rather than feel worried about making mistakes.  A good strategy is to repeat back a corrected version of their speech and then continue the conversation.

For example; Child says: “That big tain ”

Parent says: “Yes, that is a big train. It goes choo choo.”

  1. Speech sounds develop at different ages

Children learn speech sounds at different ages and stages of development, with most sounds being mastered by ages seven or eight. There is no point trying to train a two-year old to say the ‘th’ sound as this commonly isn’t learnt until after four years. A good way to help children with speech sounds is to use them as part of play – through animal or vehicle sounds (the train goes ch ch ch, the snake goes sss) or through silly songs that use sounds in a fun way. 

  1. Try to be patient but persistent (easier said than done!)

Incorporating these language learning principles into daily, family life requires patience and persistence.   It means being mindful of how you talk to your child and looking for opportunities to introduce and reinforce language throughout the day. It can be a frustrating process, especially if your child is unmotivated to communicate or gets angry when you don’t understand what they want. You may feel that this work would be better done by a paid professional. Speech language therapists will offer you amazing assistance, but you would be lucky to see someone weekly. Parents have far more opportunities to encourage communication, and the more practice children get, the more likely they are to make progress.  Be reassured that even if your child’s progress seems minimal at times, all your efforts will make a big difference to their language development.

For more information

Much of this information is based on the Ministry of Education course: ‘You and your child, building communication’.



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Charlotte Lee-Smith is a mum of two who once upon a time worked in journalism and public relations but now writes occasionally on topics that interest her. After watching her younger child struggle with a language delay she was motivated to write something that might help parents and children facing these challenges.

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