Signs Your Child May Be Experiencing a Language Delay

Worried your child's speech just isn't developing fast enough? Here are some tips on how to recognize the signs between a speech problem and language delays and who to turn to for help.

Illustrated by Anke Weckmann

Illustrated by Anke Weckmann

Louise Fitzgibbon suspected her son, Nathan, 5, might have a speech problem quite early on. “He didn’t get his first teeth until he was 14 months, so when he started to make sounds, they seemed off,” she explains. Her suspicion was confirmed when he was about three and attending nursery school. “We were the only ones who could understand him and there were certain sounds he just wasn’t able to make.” Her son’s pediatrician assured Fitzgibbon that there wasn’t an underlying developmental issue, however, she was determined to get Nathan help to prevent his speech lagging behind his peers.

According to Patricia Cleave, associate professor in the School of Human Communication Disorders at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, certain sounds, such as “S” and “th” can take longer for children to develop. By about age three, however, a stranger should understand at least 75 per cent of what a child says.

Signs Your Child Could Have a Speech Problem

Sharon Weisz, a speech-language pathologist and the director of Toronto Speech Therapy, a private practice that provides services in the Greater Toronto Area, says there’s a distinction between speech and language issues when assessing a child. Speech is the mechanical aspect that involves coordinating your tongue, lips and jaw correctly to produce the correct sounds. These problems can be the result of structural concerns (bite, size of the tongue, etc.) or due to the fact that a child just didn’t learn how to say the sound properly. Examples include:

  • Childhood Apraxia of Speech: A child with this motor speech disorder is unable to coordinate sounds to produce the series of movements of the tongue, lips and jaw to create intelligible speech. A child might be able to say “P” and “T” but unable to form the word “put.” However, only a medical doctor is permitted to make a formal diagnosis, says Weisz.
  • Stuttering: Diagnosing this disorder, with its disruption of speech sounds, is complex because “it involves an interplay of the following factors: genetics, environment and family dynamics, temperament and personality, neurophysiology and child development,” says Weisz. It’s common for preschool-aged children to go through a phase where they stutter, she adds. While 70–75 per cent of children will outgrow it without intervention, 25 per cent will not, and boys are more likely to persist in stuttering.

If The Problem is a Language Delay

Language issues, on the other hand, encompass almost everything else—understanding and following directions, pronunciation, putting words together, grammar, sentence structure, as well as social skills, and more, says Weisz. Expressive delays (spoken language) and articulation (pronunciation) delays are among the most common reasons parents turn up at a speech pathologist’s office.

Read more: Understanding Chatty Preschoolers

“Late talkers,” as they are often referred to, are children who are developing perfectly normally with the exception of their spoken vocabulary. Elaine Weitzman, executive director of The Hanen Centre in Toronto, a not-for-profit charitable organization that gives parents the necessary tools to help their children develop language, says that at age two, up to 15 per cent of children are late speakers. However, one study shows that only 40 per cent of these children are still delayed at age four (if it is an expressive delay only, not  a developmental delay).

The bulk of language learning happens in the early years of life through parent-child interactions, so knowing how to effectively communicate with your little one is half the battle. For example, Weitzman explains: “Let’s say your child points and says ‘doggy.’ If you say: ‘Oh, the doggy is barking, the doggy is saying hello,’ that is very constructive. He said ‘dog’ and now you’re giving him more information on the dog and he has something to learn from that… If you say, ‘Don’t look at the doggy. Come, we’re in a hurry,’ then he’s getting absolutely no information.” It’s in the natural daily rhythm of life that he will learn, says Weitzman.

Should You Seek Help for Your Child?

The experts agree that it’s a good idea for parents to seek help immediately if you suspect a language delay. As for Fitzgibbon, her family decided to pursue private therapy sessions because the publically funded programs had long wait-lists. With 20 sessions under their belt, Nathan is making great strides. “Nathan is now able to be understood more often. He is also able to pronounce ‘B,’ ‘S’ and ‘th.’ He is still working on clearly pronouncing his ‘F’ and ‘V.’”

Stay informed about your baby’s language development with some helpful tips on how to assess your baby’s speech.

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