How to Tell If Your Child Has a Language Learning Problem
Do you think that your child is a little slow in their learning how to speak? Do you think that they may have a speech problem? Parents are smart. They listen to their child talk and know how he or she communicates. They also listen to his or her playmates who are about the same age and may even remember what older brothers and sisters did at the same age. Then the parents mentally compare their child’s performance with the performance of these other children. What results is an impression of whether or not their child is developing speech and language at a normal rate.
If parents think that development is slow, they may check out their impression with other parents, relatives, or their pediatrician. They may get an answer such as “My son was slow too. Now he won’t shut up.” or “Don’t worry, she’ll outgrow it.” But suppose he or she doesn’t? Waiting is so hard; especially when a parent is concerned and only wants what’s best for their child. What’s a parent to do? How will you know for sure what to do? You won’t know for sure.
Although the stages that children pass through in the development of speech and language are very consistent, the exact age when they hit these milestones varies a lot. Factors such as the child’s inborn ability to learn language, other skills the child is learning, the amount and kind of language the child hears, and how people respond to communication attempts can slow down or accelerate the speed of speech and language development. This makes it difficult to say with certainty where any young child’s speech and language development will be in 3 months, or 1 year.
There are, however, certain factors that may increase the risk that a late talking child in the 18- to 30-month-old age range, and with normal intelligence, will have continuing language problems. These factors include:
Receptive language: Understanding language generally comes before expression and use. However, some studies have shown that late-talking children, after a year, should be able to understand the language at their age level. This differentiates the late-bloomers from the children who have true language delays.
Use of gestures: One study has found that the number of gestures used by late-talking children with low expressive language can indicate later language abilities. Children with a greater number of gestures used for different communication purposes are more likely to catch up with peers.
Age of diagnosis: More than one study has indicated that the older the child at time of diagnosis of language delay, the less positive the outcome. Obviously, older children in a study have had a longer time to bloom than younger children, but have not done so, indicating that the language delay may be more serious. Also, if a child is only developing slowly during an age range when other children are rapidly progressing (e.g. 24-30 months), that child will be falling farther behind.
Progress in language development: Although a child may be slow in language development, he or she should still be doing new things with language at least every month. New words may be added. The same words may be used for different purposes. For example, “bottle” may one day mean “That is my bottle,” the next, “I want my bottle,” and the next week, “Where is my bottle? I don’t see it.” Words may be combined into longer speech (“want bottle” “no bottle”), or such longer speech may occur more often.
It should be known that the negative aspects of these factors increase the risk of a true language problem, but don’t necessarily dictate its presence. For example, a study found that one of their 25- or 26-month old children with the worst receptive language had the best expressive language outcome 10 months later. On the other hand, children on the positive side of these factors may turn out to show less progress than predicted. The research group found that the child with the poorest outcome had the best receptive language and the largest vocabulary at the beginning of the study.
So what’s a parent to do?
Parents don’t have to rely on the predictions of others or to guess that their child will be just like a friend’s and eventually catch up in language development. If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, he or she should come see our speech-language pathologists certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association for a professional evaluation.
At More Than Words Therapy, our speech-language pathologists can test your child’s ability for receptive and expressive language, analyze a child’s speech in various situations, determine factors that may be slowing down language development, and counsel parents on the next steps to take.
Our speech-language pathologists may give suggestions on stimulating language development, and ask that the parent and child return if parental concern continues. Or, the speech-language pathologist may want to schedule a re-evaluation right then. In more severe cases, the speech-language pathologist may want the parent and child to become involved in an early intervention program. The pediatric therapy programs typically consist of demonstrating language stimulation techniques for home use, and more frequent monitoring of the child’s progress. In the most severe cases, a more formal treatment program may be recommended.
Waiting to find out if your child will catch up will still be hard, but you can feel good knowing you did all that you could to ensure on-target speech and language development.
Kenn Apel, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a professor and chair of communication sciences and disorders at the University of South Carolina and a widely known researcher and educator in language and literacy development and disorders.
Julie J. Masterson, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a nationally known educator and researcher in speech, language, and literacy development. She is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Missouri State University.