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Updated: August 31, 2012 16:18 IST

Hitting a word block?

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Slow to speak: Some toddlers may take their time, but with help could get over their problem
The Hindu
Slow to speak: Some toddlers may take their time, but with help could get over their problem

When children do not reach the desired speech milestones by a specific age it’s a pointer to parents to seek the help of a speech-language pathologist

In this tech-savvy world, when parents use Google “20 months old not talking”, they will get thousands of posts from concerned parents seeking and offering advice for their late talking toddlers. Often, these parents, whose children appear to be developing normally in every other aspect, are told by their family members not to worry and that someone in their family “didn’t start talking till age three” or that “boys talk late”.

Even when instinct tells them to seek help, they are told to “wait and watch”. It is a confusing situation for a parent who wants to do the best for the child.

“Wait and watch” and “each child develops at their own pace” approaches are common misconceptions about late talkers. While some children do develop at their own pace, parents cannot negate the fact that certain speech and language milestones have to be reached by a specific age. When this does not happen, it becomes a cause for concern.

Who is a late talker?

A toddler aged between 18 and 30 months with a good understanding of language, and who is typically developing play skills, thinking abilities and social skills, but with very limited, age-appropriate spoken vocabulary, is a late talker. These pre-schoolers can be very puzzling as they seem to have all the building blocks required for developing speech, yet they talk very little or don’t talk at all.

Important language milestones

The following pointers can help parents determine if their child has attained age-appropriate speech and language milestones. If not, they should seek help from a speech-language pathologist immediately.

* 18-month-olds should use at least 20 words, including different kinds of words such as nouns (ball, mommy), verbs (go, catch), prepositions (up, down), adjectives (hot, sleepy), and social words (hi, bye).

* 24-month-olds should use at least 100 words and combine two words together. These word combinations should be generated by the child, and not be combinations that are “memorised chunks” of language, such as “thank you”, “bye bye”, “all gone”, or “what’s that?”. Examples of true word combinations would be “doggie gone”, “eat cookie”, or “dirty hands”.

Do late talkers catch up on their own?

Some late talking toddlers do “grow out of it”, but many don’t. It is difficult to predict which of these children will catch up with their peers. Here is a list of risk factors that have been identified that will help determine when a child is more likely to have persisting expressive language delays:

* Quiet as an infant; very little vocalisation.

* History of recurring ear infections.

* Limited number of consonant sounds (e.g. p, b, m, t, d, n, y, k, g, etc.).

* Does not link pretend ideas and actions together while playing (e.g. police-thief game, using imaginary objects as phones and say “hello”).

* Does not imitate (copy) words/sounds (e.g. cow says “moo”).

* Uses mostly nouns (names of people, places, things), and few verbs (action words).

* Difficulty playing with peers (social skills).

* A family history of communication delay, learning or academic difficulties.

* Mild comprehension (understanding) delay for his or her age.

* Uses few gestures and pointing to communicate.

Children who demonstrate the last three risk factors are at higher risk for continued speech and language delays.

What about the group of late talkers who catch up in their own time? Research suggests that even though some children start using words when they enter pre-school, they do not perform as well as their peers in certain aspects of language use such as grammar and complex use of language.

What should you do if your child is a late talker?

* Consult a speech-language pathologist about your concerns.

* Get your child’s hearing evaluated. Even mild hearing impairment can seriously affect a child’s normal speech and language milestones.

* Select a preschool with a smaller student to teacher ratio (10:1 is an ideal ratio)

* Spend quality play time with your child by following his/her interest and bombard them with new words and exciting sounds. Avoid television as it is one-way communication!

* Create an environment where the child can explore and ask for things it desires rather than making them readily available.

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