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Language Acquisition and Late Talking

Einstein did not speak until he was four. Even if Jimmy doesn’t become a prominent nuclear physicist, he may also pick up language slowly. Children acquire speech at different ages, and there is no magic point at which Jimmy will utter his first words or first sentences. Parents often worry needlessly about late talkers.

Generally, children start saying a couple of two-syllable words between the ages of ten and twelve months. These words don’t mean much, or they could mean many things. “Dada” represents daddy, but it could also be the cat, the TV, and any number of household items. Even if there are only a few of these quasi-nonsense words, they represent an important milestone. They tell you that Jimmy can hear and reproduce sounds. This is the basis of language acquisition. Though these first words occur at twelve months on average, they can come as late as twenty-four months. After his first breakthrough, Jimmy slowly builds a vocabulary. On average—and this is only a rough guideline—he will have a firm command of five words by fifteen months and a few dozen words by eighteen months.

If Jimmy begins talking late, it is most likely the result of one of three scenarios:

1 | He doesn’t hear well. Does he respond to your voice or to music? If you have any doubt, your doctor will perform a hearing test. Hearing deficits are usually caused by an accumulation of ear fluid following recurrent ear infections. If that’s the case, ear tubes will probably be indicated [See: Ear Infections and Ear Tubes].

2 | He is mentally delayed. Some children suffer from nonspecific mental delay and are therefore compromised in many areas: fine and gross motor coordination, and cognitive and emotional development. This would already have been evident. Other forms of mental retardation specific to language show up as a child’s inability to relate even to the people closest to him. At the end of the spectrum is autism; these children are oblivious to the people around them [See: Autism].

3 | He’s just a late talker. This covers the majority of cases, and as a parent you can usually diagnose this by exclusion: If Jimmy does not have a hearing impairment and isn’t mentally delayed, then he is most likely a late talker. Language acquisition depends on a specific part of the brain that develops differently from child to child.

WHEN TO WORRY

If you suspect that Jimmy does not hear well

If he can hear but doesn’t seem to understand what you say

If he does not establish eye contact and engages in self-stimulating repetitive activities (like turning in circles)

If, instead of seeing slow progress, you see no progress or if you even see regression in language acquisition

If his language consists more of repetitive, imitative words than spontaneous, even nonsensical words

WHEN NOT TO WORRY

If Jimmy is receptive to language and responds to simple sentences like “Bring me your shoes”

If you see slow but steady progress

If he interacts and shows marked interest in others

If he listens to you while you’re reading

If he points to things

WHAT TO DO
Like any other milestone, language acquisition varies greatly. One kid will walk at ten months, while another takes timid steps at eighteen months. But at three years both kids will be walking the same way, and training the late walkers won’t get them on their feet any earlier if the brain hasn’t yet decided it’s ready. Once you’ve established that Jimmy is simply a late talker, you should speak and read normally to him, as if he is capable of carrying on a conversation. When the part of his brain that commands language does mature, he won’t stop talking.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don’t coach him to talk.

Don’t make him repeat things.

Don’t attempt amateur speech therapy. A late talker will talk when the language section of his brain has matured, not because he’s been taught how to.

Real questions from real parents
Do boys speak later than girls?
On average, girls begin talking about a month earlier than boys. No biggie!

My child learned a few words and then stopped speaking altogether. What happened?
This is very common. Children often develop erratically: two steps forward and one step back. Within a couple of weeks the momentum should pick up, and word acquisition will recommence. If the slowdown persists, however, consider with your doctor the possibilities of language delay or a hearing deficit.


Does being in a multilingual environment delay language acquisition?

Learning two languages simultaneously may delay language acquisition by a few months. However, the advantages of acquiring fluency in another language are enormous, since we pick up languages so much faster as children. If your mother tongue is not English and your child is a late talker, I still recommend that you use your native language. [See: Multilingual Environment].