A language delay is a communication disorder. A child is said to have a language delay if he or she does not meet the language developmental milestones for his or her age. Language may be developing, but it is at a slower rate than the norm for the child's age.
A language delay can involve a hearing, speech, or language impairment, or a combination of two impairments or all three. Language and speech disorders are common. According to the University of Michigan Health System, they affect up to 10 percent of preschool-age children (University of Michigan Health System).
A language delay can be receptive, expressive, or a combination of both.
A receptive language problem occurs when a child has difficulty understanding language.
An expressive language disorder occurs when the child has difficulty expressing himself or herself.
Some children have a language delay that involves both expressive and receptive issues.
There are many possible causes for language delays in children. In some instances, more than one factor contributes to the delay. Some common causes include:
- Hearing impairment: It is common for children who have a hearing impairment to also have a language impairment. In very young children, a hearing impairment may be overlooked. If a child cannot hear language, learning to communicate can be difficult.
- Autism: Although not all children with autism have language delays, autism frequently affects communication.
- Psychosocial factors: Several psychosocial issues can cause language delays. For example, severe neglect can lead to problems with language development.
- Intellectual disabilities: Various intellectual disabilities can also cause language delays. For instance, learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, may cause language delays in some cases.
The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force identified these risk factors for language delays:
- being male
- having a low birth weight
- being born prematurely
Symptoms of a language delay involve a failure to reach language milestones at the normal age. Symptoms vary depending on the age of the child and the severity of the delay.
Some symptoms are:
- not babbling by the age of 15 months
- not talking by age two
- an inability to speak in short sentences by age three
- difficulty following directions
- poor pronunciation or articulation
- difficulty putting words together in a sentence
- leaving words out of a sentence
Language delay diagnoses generally come after a physical exam and history. A doctor may ask which language milestones a child has already met.
A hearing exam will help to determine whether a child has a hearing impairment.
A language therapist or neuropsychologist may administer various standardized language assessments in order to determine whether a language delay is present.
After diagnosis, treatment involves speech and language therapy. A licensed speech-language pathologist will complete an evaluation to determine the types of problems that are present. This will help the speech pathologist develop and implement a treatment plan.
Starting treatment soon after diagnosis is important. It can help prevent other problems from developing. For example, social and emotional problems can develop as a result of a language delay.
The prognosis for children with language delays varies. Some children are able to catch up to their peers and meet future language milestones. Other children may have more difficulty overcoming language delays, and problems can continue into later childhood. Some children with language delays may have difficulty reading or have behavior problems as a result of language delays.
It may not be possible to prevent language delays in all cases. For example, learning disabilities, autism, and hearing impairments may not be preventable. Although it may not be possible to prevent language delays, there are ways to encourage language development.
You can do several things to encourage language development in children, including:
- read to children out loud
- talking to babies from birth
- responding to a baby’s babbling
- answering questions
- singing to babies and children