The neighborhood playgroup can be a stress-inducing gathering for young parents. You don’t intend to compare children, but you can’t help notice that one neighbor’s daughter has a ten-word vocabulary, another neighbor’s son is babbling in two-word sentences, while your toddler hasn’t yet uttered the sweet word “mama.” His hearing has been tested as normal, and you read books to him every night. A worry is forming a knot in your heart: Is he a late bloomer, or does he have a language impairment?
Understanding Precedes Utterance
Language delays that are not due to hearing issues or a speech impediment generally fall into two major categories: Expressive or receptive. Children who struggle to articulate their thoughts are said to have expressive language issues. Those who have difficulty comprehending what others are saying have receptive issues. Some children have both.
Since understanding language is a necessary precursor to using words, the first concern when it comes to young toddlers is their receptive skills rather than their speech. A young toddler’s silence isn’t as critical as his reaction to language in the form of a parent’s questions, commands, and requests.
If a silent 18-month-old freely uses gestures like pointing, waving, and nodding, or a two-year-old will dance or jump when asked, he is expressing the receptive skills denoting a basic comprehension of language. Mimicking and gesticulating are positive signs that such late talkers will likely catch up to their peers.
In terms of speech, a definitive diagnosis of expressive language impairment generally isn’t made until the later toddler years, when language is expected to be more fully developed and used.
Tripping Over The Tongue
A general rule of thumb is that by 24 months of age a child should know and use two dozen words. By two-and-a-half years of age, she should be using two-word sentences with basic grammar, like a subject and a conjugated verb. More important than these milestones, however, is that the child’s use of language continues to grow steadily in both vocabulary and complexity. Any backsliding or plateauing, especially during the period of rapid language advancement of 24-36 months, may suggest a delay in expressive skills.
When it comes to comprehension and expressive language skills in young children, early intervention is vital. A licensed speech-language pathologist is trained to test and identify impairments and promote child-specific, issue-specific intervention programs to nurture development to the child’s maximum capacity. If you have any concerns about your toddler’s language development, don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician or contact a speech-language professional.