Language Delay


Children learn language at different rates. But if children miss language development milestones by a long way, they are regarded as having a language delay.

What is language delay?

A language delay is when a child has difficulties understanding and/or using spoken language. These difficulties are unusual for the child's age.

The difficulties might be with:

  • responding to language
  • understanding words or sentences
  • saying first words or learning words
  • putting words together to make sentences
  • building vocabulary.

Some language delays are associated with conditions like autism, Down syndrome and deafness or hearing loss. But many language delays happen on their own.

Language delay, speech disorder or developmental language disorder?

A language delay is different from a speech disorder or developmental language disorder.

speech (sound) disorder is when children have difficulty pronouncing the sounds in words. This can make their speech difficult to understand, although they understand words and sentences and can form phrases and sentences the right way.

If a child has a language delay that doesn't go away, it might be a sign of a developmental language disorder. Children with a developmental language disorder have difficulties with understanding and/or speaking that affect their everyday lives.

Children with speech disorders don't necessarily have language delay or developmental language disorder. And not all children who have language delay have problems with speech.

Signs of language delay at different ages

Children develop language at different rates. So comparing your child with other children of the same age might not help you to know whether your child has a language delay.

That's why it's best to seek professional advice if you see any of the following signs in your child at different ages.

By 6 months
Your child isn't:

  • trying to use eye contact
  • looking at you when you call their name
  • turning to look at objects when you talk about them.

By 12 months
Your child isn't:

  • playing turn-taking games like peekaboo
  • trying to communicate with you using sounds, gestures and/or words
  • trying to communicate with you when they need help or want something.

By 18 months
Your child isn't:

  • responding to everyday instructions and questions like 'Wave bye bye', 'Where's Daddy?' or 'Give me the ball, please'
  • saying single words.

By 2 years
Your child isn't:

  • saying about 50 different words
  • putting 2 or more words together – for example, 'More drink', 'Mum up' or 'Me go too'
  • producing words spontaneously – that is, your child only copies words or phrases from others
  • naming at least one colour
  • responding to everyday instructions and questions like 'Get your shoes', 'Want a drink?' or 'Where's Daddy?'

Language delay is quite common at this age. About 1 in 6 children shows signs of language delay and are considered 'late talkers'. But by 4 years most 'late talkers' have caught up to other children the same age.

At about 3 years
Your child isn't:

  • combining words into longer phrases or sentences – for example, 'Help me Mummy' or 'Want more drink'
  • responding to longer instructions and questions like 'Get your shoes and put them in the box' or 'What do you want to eat for lunch today?'
  • taking an interest in books
  • asking questions.

From 4-5 years and older
Some children still have difficulties with language by the time they start preschool or school. If these difficulties can't be explained by other things like autism or hearing loss, it might be developmental language disorder.

At this age, children with developmental language disorder might:

  • struggle to learn new words and make conversation
  • use short, simple sentences and often leave out important words in sentences
  • respond to just part of an instruction
  • struggle to use past, present or future tense the right way – for example, they say 'skip' instead of 'skipped' when talking about activities they've already done
  • find it hard to use the right words and use general words like 'stuff' or 'things' instead
  • not understand the meaning of words, sentences or stories.

At any age
Your child:

  • has been diagnosed with a hearing loss, developmental delay or syndrome in which language might be affected – for example, autism, Down syndrome or Fragile X
  • stops doing things that they used to do – for example, they stop talking.

Children having difficulties with language need help as early as possible. If you're concerned, trust your instincts and speak with your General Practitioner, paediatrician ,your child's teacher or a speech therapist. If this professional isn't concerned about your child but you're still worried, it's a good idea to seek another opinion.

​Where to get help for language delay

If you think your child is having trouble with language, talk to a professional. For example, you could talk to:

  • staff at your child care centre, preschool or school
  • a speech therapist
  • an audiologist
  • a General Practitioner (GP) or paediatrician
  • a psychologist.

    If you think your child's main difficulty is understanding and using language, you might want to visit a speech therapist. Speech therapists can use language tests to assess how your child uses words and responds to requests, commands or questions.

    If you think your child might be hard of hearing or have hearing loss, it's best to have your child's hearing checked by an audiologist. Hearing loss could interfere with your child's language development and communication.

​Support for children with language delay

If your child is diagnosed with language delay, the health professional you're working with might recommend group programs that build language skills. The professional might also help your child develop other ways to communicate, like using pictures, games and/or books.

The professional might give you strategies that you can use at home to help your child communicate. This might include giving your child plenty of time to begin a conversation. You can also help your child by responding and expanding on their efforts to communicate, whether it's with words, actions or sounds.

​Causes of language delay

We don't know what causes language delay in most cases. But we do know that language delay tends to run in families.

Language delay is more likely for:

  • boys
  • children who have a close family member with a history of a language delay or communication disorder
  • children who have a developmental disorder or syndrome like autism or Down syndrome
  • children with ongoing hearing problems and ear infections.

Sometimes, a delay in language skills can be a sign of a more serious developmental disorder including deafness or hearing loss, developmental delay, intellectual disability or autism. You know your child better than anyone else. If you're worried, talk to your General Practitioner or a health professional.

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