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A parent's guide to language disorders or delays

Updated: May 16, 2019

What is a language disorder or language delay?

A language delay involves impairment in comprehension and/or use of language. Children with language delays often don’t meet developmental milestones on time and may have trouble understanding others and expressing themselves. Language involves understanding and expressing. Receptive language is the ability to understand verbal (spoken) and nonverbal (written, gestural) language, while expressive language is how one expresses his or her wants and needs. Receptive language skills include understanding vocabulary, following directions, answering questions, and understanding concepts. Expressive language encompasses vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar. A language delay or disorder may affect receptive language, expressive language, or both.

What causes a language delay?

Males, premature babies, and children with family history of language disorders are more likely to have a language delay. There are many possible causes for a language delay. Some possible causes are:

  • Family history of language problems

  • Prematurity and/or low birth weight

  • Autism

  • Hearing loss

How do I know if my child has delayed language?

Becoming familiar with developmental milestones will help clarify if your child is on track. See language milestones here. Your child may have a language delay if:

  • Minimal babbling by 12 months

  • Inability to point to common items (ball, cup, apple) by 12 months

  • No words by 18 months

  • Not pointing to pictures in a book by 18 months

  • Not following simple directions by 2 years

  • Inability to speak in short sentences by 3 years

How do you treat language delays?

Because language delays are variable among children, treatment will look different for every child. Your child’s speech-language pathologist will formulate and measure specific language goals based on the results of a standardized evaluation. Some possible treatment goals may include following directions to increase understanding and to improve how your child uses words and sentences to communicate with people. Treatment will also include teaching the caregiver or parent how to support language growth at home.

Will my child outgrow their language delay?

Some children catch up to their peers and will eventually meet language milestones. Other children have more difficulty overcoming language delays and may face problems in later childhood if untreated. If your child is diagnosed with a language delay, it’s important to start treatment early. We know that the earlier we start to help children, the better their outcomes. Early treatment can help prevent other problems from developing, such as social, academic, and emotional problems.

Tips to encourage language growth in babies and toddlers:

  • Talk to your child during everyday home activities, like cooking, driving to school, or cleaning up.

  • Read books every day. Point out pictures and characters.

  • Talk about the world around you. Point to signs and items at stores and parks.

  • Ask your child questions and give them time to answer.

  • Listen when your child talks and build conversations.

Other resources for language disorders:

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