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How to detect a language delay

little confused boy

Key points:
1. Preschool years exhibit significant variation in language development.
2. Talkativeness doesn’t equate to intelligence or vocabulary richness.
3. Language differences often even out by school age, but delays can persist.
4. Language delays may require professional help like speech-language therapy.

The preschool years are a time of great variation when it comes to language acquisition. For some children, language develops at a steady rate and for others it doesn’t. Some children are more talkative than others, but that doesn’t mean that they are smarter or have a richer vocabulary. It simply means that quieter children are more selective when speaking. These differences in language development tend to even out around the time children reach school age, but sometimes that is not the case and a language delay could be present.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, by 2 years of age most toddlers will:

  • Point to many body parts and common objects
  • Point to pictures in books
  • Follow single commands without needing an illustrative gesture, like “Pick up your shoes”
  • Be able to say between 50 to 100 words
  • Say several 2-word phrases like “Daddy go” and “All gone”
  • Might say a few 3-word sentences like “I want water” or “You go bye-bye”
  • Be understood by others about half of the time

When children have problems with their receptive language (understanding words), they may have trouble understanding what gestures mean, have trouble following directions, answering questions, pointing to objects and pictures, and knowing how to take turns when talking with others. On the other hand, when children have problems with their expressive language (with talking), they may have trouble asking questions, naming objects, using gestures, speaking in sentences, learning songs and rhymes, using correct pronouns, carrying out a conversation, and changing how they talk to different people in different places. Many children have problems with both understanding and talking.

Language delays are sometimes temporary and they may go away on their own with time and help from friends and family. Encourage your little one to talk to you and be patient with them. If you’re worried about your child’s language development, talk to your pediatrician about it. The doctor will first rule out any physical problems that might be delaying language acquisition, like a hearing problem. Then, they might recommend visiting a professional, like a speech-language pathologist, who can help your little one learn how to communicate.

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