Toddler Talk: Late Talker or Language Delay?

Along with learning to walk, learning to talk is one of the most anticipated milestones for toddlers.

If you are a parent or early educator and are concerned about the speech and language skills of a toddler you care about, this practical advice from Kids First’s experienced speech pathologists could help.

How to help a toddler who is a late talker

What is a ‘Late Talker’

A ‘Late Talker’ is a toddler between 18 months and 30 months who is developing typically for their age, but has an usually small vocabulary.

Late talkers can be tricky to identify. While your child may seem to understand what is said to them, play well, and have good thinking, and social skills, they may talk very little. Or not at all.

Children who are late talkers have a specific difficulty with spoken language. Clinically this is often referred to as a delay in their expressive language.

Signs to watch out for

Because late talkers typically make good progress in other areas of their development, it’s natural to hope that your late-talking child will catch up on their own.

Fortunately, many late talkers do “grow out of it”, but many do not, and it can be difficult to predict if your child will be one of the lucky ones who catches up to their peers.

Researchers have identified a list of risk factors that suggest that a child is more likely to have continuing language difficulties¹ when they:

  • Were very quiet as an infant and engaged in little babbling

  • Have a history of ear infections

  • Can say a limited number of consonant sounds (eg. p, b, m, t, d, n, y, k, g, etc.)

  • Do not link pretend ideas and actions together while playing

  • Do not imitate (copy) words that other people say

  • Use mostly nouns (names of people, places, things), and few verbs (action words)

  • Have difficulty playing with peers (social skills)

  • Have a family history of communication delay, learning or academic difficulties

  • Seem to have a mild comprehension (understanding) delay for his or her age

  • Use few gestures to communicate
How to help a child who is a late talker

Should I wait and see?

If any of these characteristics sound familiar and are relevant to your child, it can be tempting to listen to well-meaning relatives who tell you that their child “didn’t talk until they were three” or to believe that boys learn to speak later than girls.

What we do know is that there are certain speech and language milestones that typically developing children should reach by a specific age.

While 70 to 80 percent of late talkers end up meeting the milestones that other kids do, this often comes at a cost. Research has shown that children who are late to develop speech and language have usually had to work harder than other kids to build their communication skills. They sometimes end up having language and literacy delays that continue all the way through to adolescence.²

Late talkers also tend to have more ‘gaps’ in other learning abilities and can have difficulties with higher-order skills that are related to language, such as social interactions, friendships, paying attention, and controlling impulsive behaviour.

Children who demonstrate the final three risk factors above (that is, family history, comprehension problems, or few gestures) are at the greatest risk for a continuing language delay.³

Toddlers who are late talkers

How to help your late talker

If you are a parent or teacher who is concerned about the way your young child’s speech and language skills are developing, seek advice from your GP and a children’s speech pathologist.

You may also wish to have your child’s hearing evaluated by an audiologist. Even if you expect that your child’s hearing is normal, it’s worth checking to ensure that your child can hear sounds at a variety of volumes and pitches. The slightest of hearing impairments can not only cause difficulties with your child’s speech and language development but their learning and social skills too.

Speech Therapy for Late Talkers at Kids First

If you have concerns about the development of your toddler’s communication skills, Kids First’s experienced speech pathologists can help. Fully trained to identify the specific needs of children who have speech and language problems, our friendly team has helped thousands of late talkers learn how to speak with confidence. Call us on 9938 5419 to chat about your child’s needs

Learn more about speech therapy at Kids First here


¹ Olswang, L.B., Rodriguez, B. & Timler, G. (1998). Recommending Intervention for Toddlers With Specific Language Learning Difficulties: We May Not Have All the Answers, But We Know a Lot. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 7, 23 – 32

² Rice, M. L., Taylor, C. L., & Zubrick, S.R. (2008). Language outcomes of 7-year-old children with or without a history of late language emergence at 24 months. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51, 394-407.

³ Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (2008, May 16). Mixed Results For Late-talking Toddlers. ScienceDaily. 16 May 2008. Web. 10 Jun. 2011.

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