A Guide for Parents: Language and Developmental Delays

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One of the greatest joys that parents anticipate is hearing their child’s first words. When a developmental delay in language happens, preventing a child from speaking those first words, parents’ joy turns to concern. Established developmental milestones indicate that most children develop speech and language between the ages of 2 to 5 years old. Some children lag behind their peers, but they eventually acquire normal speech and language skills. On the other hand, if children continue to exhibit a marked difference in language development compared to their peers, parents should seek an evaluation. A child’s pediatrician, along with a speech therapist, can help determine a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that typically involves speech therapy and other interventions.

Areas of Language Development

First, it’s important to understand that there is a distinction between speech and language. Speech is the physical articulation and expression of language. Language is more comprehensive, as it includes receiving and understanding verbal communication, as well as expressing it appropriately. [1]

Second, these are the three main areas of speech and language development:

1. Receptive: the ability to hear and understand speech and the nuances of language

2. Expressive: the ability to speak and enunciate clearly and correctly, as well as use language appropriately.

3. Pragmatic: the ability to discriminate and use language correctly based on the social setting—includes understanding and incorporating correct emotion, tone, reasoning, facial/body gestures

Children may exhibit a developmental delay in language in one or more of these areas. In addition, some children, particularly those with autism, may have apraxia or dyspraxia. Apraxia indicates the inability to speak; dyspraxia indicates a limited ability to speak. [2]

Developmental Milestones

The period between 2 to 5 years of age is crucial for a child’s speech and language development. If a child progresses normally, he or she should attain specific developmental milestones. A child’s language blossoms between 2 to 3 years old to include just under 500 words and short sentences of a few words. Between 3 to 5 years old, a child’s vocabulary triples to over 1,500 words and sentence constructions of several words. During the next three-year period, from 5 to 8 years, a child typically acquires and maintains a vocabulary of over 2,000 words, including complex sentence use, intelligible articulation of words, and the ability to converse with peers and adults. [3]

Developmental Delays

If a child does not attain each developmental milestone within a reasonable amount of time, and doesn’t appear to simply be a “late bloomer” as compared to his or her peers (within a few months), then the child may in fact have a legitimate developmental language delay. These are some early warning signs a child with developmental language delay may exhibit at specific age ranges [4]:

  • 12 to 24 months: does not use gestures (pointing, waving); prefers gestures instead of attempting to talk by 18 months old; has difficulty imitating sounds or understanding simple requests by 18 months old.
  • 2 years and over: does not produce spontaneous words or phrases, only imitates what he or she hears; repeats certain sounds or words, but unable to communicate needs; unable to respond to, or follow directions; has nasal or raspy voice; mostly unintelligible “jargon,” even to parents, siblings, or other caregivers.

Reasons for Developmental Language Delays

A number of reasons can contribute to a child’s developmental language delays [4]:

  • Physical abnormalities including cleft palate or short frenulum (piece of connective tissue directly under the tongue).
  • Physical illnesses such as chronic ear infections.
  • Oral-motor problems that interfere with brain functions that control the mouth, tongue, and lips.
  • Developmental delays or disorders including pervasive developmental disorders like autism, or mental deficiency/retardation.

Conclusion and Concerns

Remember that each child is an individual who develops at his or her own pace. The child may be a “late bloomer” who eventually catches up with his or her peers. If parents feel concerned about a child’s speech and language development, however, they should consult with the child’s pediatrician, as well as a speech and language pathologist (SLP) to obtain an evaluation and treatment plan. Many schools also offer screenings and evaluations, which may provide a first diagnosis of a problem.


[1] KidsHealth.org. Delayed Speech or Language Development. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/not_talk.html

[2] Apraxia-KIDS.org. Understanding Apraxia. Retrieved from https://www.apraxia-kids.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=chKMI0PIIsE&b=787891&ct=464119

[3] Child Development Institute. Language Development in Children. Retrieved from https://www.childdevelopmentinfo.com/development/language_development.shtml

[4] [5] KidsHealth.org. Delayed Speech or Language Development. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/not_talk.html#a_Warning%20Signs%20of%20a%20Possible%20Problem