What is a Language Delay?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2018
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A language delay is an unusually slow development of language skills in a child, when compared to peers. It is important to be aware of the considerable variance when it comes to language development, with some children developing skills very early, while others take longer. A broad time frame is used when discussing the development of language with the goal of catching delays without accidentally pathologizing children who are simply developing a little slower without any underlying problem.

In a language delay, a child is following the right sequence in terms of first babbling, then starting to articulate words and string them together, understanding commands, and eventually being able to tell short stories, but this happens more slowly than with other children. One of the most common causes of language delay is a hearing impairment, where the child has trouble developing language skills because of an auditory processing disorder or a mechanical problem with the ears. Other causes can include being a bilingual speaker, where the child's combined language skills are actually appropriate to the age but skills in each language are developing slowly, or a developmental disability.


When a language delay appears on its own, parents are sometimes hesitant to seek medical treatment because they believe the child will eventually catch up. It is important to have children who appear to be experiencing language delays evaluated, as they may have an underlying issue that requires attention. Some developmental and cognitive disabilities show up first as a language delay, for example, while people with hearing impairments who are diagnosed early and provided with treatment can catch up to their peers more easily.

Children with a language delay are usually seen by a speech-language pathologist, a care provider who specializes in issues involving speech and language. This person will conduct testing with the child to learn more about the child's level of language skill and to check for signs of underlying issues. Interviews will also be conducted with parents or guardians to look for issues in the home environment that may be contributing, such as a child who doesn't get a chance to speak because of talkative siblings.

Numerous treatments are available for language delay. Sometimes a wait and see approach is advised, with appropriate interventions like reading to children and interacting with them to get them familiar with speech. Therapy can also be provided to help a child develop language skills. Treatment of an underlying issue can sometimes address the language acquisition problem and help the child catch up to peers in the same age group.



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