Late talkers - Children who start speaking later than others

What it means to be a late talker and when to talk to a speech and language therapist

Mary-Pat O'Malley
Updated on
March 16, 2021
6 min read

The research shows that anywhere from 3-20% of two to three year old children are late talkers. That’s quite a range! Different studies use different definitions and measures which leads to varying findings.

What does it mean to be a late talker though? Once again different definitions! But a general rule of thumb is when a child has less than fifty words and is not combining words by 24 months of age into true two-word combinations like "my bottle", "mama gone" and so on. ("Thank you", "all gone" and so on are one chunk, so they don’t count as two-word combinations.)

Late talkers also means children who are developing along expected lines when it comes to hearing and they don’t have a learning disability or neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism. Understanding of language can also be affected. Some researchers describe a subset of later talkers called late bloomers who are thought to catch up with their peers by age three to five. But it’s very difficult to work out who will grow out of their late talking and who won’t.

The general consensus is that waiting and watching isn’t helpful. This is because even when children do catch up with their peers, they tend to perform at the lower end of the average range on language tests suggesting weaknesses when it comes to language development. (Between 50 and 70% of late talkers are thought to catch up with peers.) Outcomes tend to be better for children who have only an expressive language issue (the words and grammar that they use) as opposed to children who have problems both with understanding and use of language.

What puts a child at risk for being a late talker?

Speaking two or more languages is not a risk factor. Being bilingual or multilingual does not cause speech and language problems. Here are some of the things that have been identified in the research: being a boy, having a family history of speech and language problems, being born at less than 85% of their optimum birth weight or before 37 weeks, and limited language abilities at 12 months has been found to be a reliable predictor of communication skills at two years. The more risk factors occurring together, the higher the risk. If only one of these factors (and this is not the whole list of risk factors) then that does not mean your child will experience language delay.

What to do if you’re worried?

The best thing to do is talk to a speech and language therapist who can advise you about the need for an assessment. We can do detailed assessments from a very young age (from 8 months or even younger) and we can guide you as to what to do to help your child’s language development along. You can keep a very simple language and communication diary where you write down how your child currently communicates, what gestures they use (things like pointing and waving), what they like to communicate about, what they seem to understand in all of their languages, what sounds and words they are using in all of their languages. Pay attention to how you communicate with them. If you notice that you tend to ask a lot of questions, see if you can turn some of them into statements describing what they’re looking at or doing. Wait for them to respond.

Early intervention is important and speech and language therapists can help you by showing you the most effective ways to develop your child’s languages. There is no need to drop any of their languages as speaking two or more languages is not at the root of early language delay. For more tips, have a look at Talk Nua. You can also join the Becoming Bilingual group on Facebook which was set up by myself and my colleague Nadja Herkner (another speech and language therapist) to support parents with questions about their multilingual children’s speech and language development. We’d love to see you there!

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Mary-Pat O'Malley

I am a speech & language therapist, lecturer, & researcher with a special interest in working with multilingual familes. I am also a PEaCH Ambassador for supporting multilingual families. I speak English & Irish.

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