What is a language delay?

A language delay is a type of communication disorder. Your child may have a language delay if they don’t meet the language developmental milestones for their age. Their language abilities may be developing at a slower rate than most children’s. They may have trouble expressing themselves or understanding others. Their delay may involve a combination of hearing, speech, and cognitive impairments.

Language delays are quite common. According to the University of Michigan Health System, delayed speech or language development affects 5 to 10 percent of preschool-aged children.

A language delay can be receptive, expressive, or a combination of both. A receptive language deficit happens when your child has difficulty understanding language. An expressive language disorder happens when your child has difficulty communicating verbally.

If your child has a language delay, they won’t reach language milestones at the typical age. Their specific symptoms and missed milestones depend on their age and the nature of their language delay.

Common symptoms of a language delay include:

  • not babbling by the age of 15 months
  • not talking by the age of 2 years
  • an inability to speak in short sentences by the age of 3 years
  • difficulty following directions
  • poor pronunciation or articulation
  • difficulty putting words together in a sentence
  • leaving words out of a sentence

Language delays in children have many possible causes. In some instances, more than one factor contributes to a language delay. Some common causes include the following:

  • Hearing impairment: It’s common for children who have a hearing impairment to have a language impairment as well. If they can’t hear language, learning to communicate can be difficult.
  • Autism: While not all children with autism have language delays, autism frequently affects communication.
  • Intellectual disability: A variety of intellectual disabilities can cause language delays. For instance, dyslexia and other learning disabilities lead to language delays in some cases.
  • Several psychosocial issues: These can cause language delays, as well. For example, severe neglect can lead to problems with language development.

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, potential risk factors for speech and language problems include:

  • being male
  • being born prematurely
  • having a low birth weight
  • having a family history of speech or language problems
  • having parents with lower levels of education

After conducting a thorough medical assessment, your child’s doctor will refer you to a speech-language pathologist. They will perform a comprehensive assessment of your child’s expressive and receptive language to determine if your child has a language delay. The exam will focus on various forms of verbal and nonverbal communication and use standardized and informal measures.

After completing a speech and language evaluation, the language pathologist may recommend other exams. For example, a hearing exam can help them determine if your child has a hearing impairment. Your child may have hearing problems that have been overlooked, especially if they’re very young.

After diagnosis, your child’s treatment plan will likely involve speech and language therapy. A licensed speech-language pathologist will complete an evaluation to determine the types of problems that your child is facing. This information will help them develop and implement a treatment plan.

If your child has underlying health conditions, their doctor may recommend other treatments as well. For example, they may recommend an evaluation by a neuropsychologist.

Your child’s outlook will vary depending on their specific condition and age. Some children catch up to their peers and meet future language milestones. Other children have more difficulty overcoming language delays and may face problems in later childhood. Some children with language delays have reading or behavior problems as a result of their delayed language development.

If your child is diagnosed with a language delay, it’s important to start treatment quickly. Early treatment can help prevent other problems from developing, such as social, learning, and emotional problems.

It may not be possible to prevent all language delays. Hearing impairments and learning disabilities may not always be preventable. Follow these tips to encourage language development in your child:

  • Talk to your child from the time they’re born.
  • Respond to your child’s babbling when they’re a baby.
  • Sing to your child, even when they’re a baby.
  • Read aloud to your child.
  • Answer your child’s questions.