Language delay

Language delay

What is a language delay?

A language delay is a type of communication disorder that occurs when a child experiences difficulties expressing themselves or understanding others. Language delays are also the most common form of developmental delay. In fact, around one out of five children learn to speak and use words later than others around the same age.

The age of learning language and starting to speak does vary from one child to another. Most babies will babble and say "mama" and "dada" before their first birthday, and most toddlers can say about 20 words by the time they are 18 months old. They should also be able to combine two words together to make a sentence by the time they turn two years old.

Language delays come in two forms: receptive and expressive. A receptive language delay means that a child has difficulties understanding words or sentences. In an expressive language delay, difficulties are usually associated with verbal communication.

Sometimes, a simple speech delay might be temporary. In such cases, they would usually resolve on their own. Parents can help their children as well, by encouraging them to "talk" with gestures or sounds. You can also spend more time playing, talking and reading with your infant or toddler.

Here are some signs to look out for in your child that may indicate a language delay.


  • By 12 months: Isn't using gestures, such as pointing or waving bye-bye
  • By 18 months: Prefers gestures over vocalisations to communicate
  • By 18 months: Has trouble imitating sounds and understanding simple one-step verbal requests
  • By 2 years: Can only imitate speech or actions, but does not produce words or two-to-three word phrases spontaneously
  • By 2 years: Says only certain sounds or words repeatedly, and can't use oral language to communicate more than his or her immediate needs
  • By 2 years: Can't follow simple directions (e.g. put the cup on the table)
  • By 2 years: Has an unusual tone of voice (such as a raspy or nasal sound)
  • By 4 years: Can’t narrate simple everyday experiences

Parents should also note that language delays may be a warning sign of more serious issues. This may include developmental delays in other areas, hearing loss or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

If you are concerned that your child is not hitting their language development milestones, it’s crucial to have them evaluated as early as possible. They may require a trained speech and language therapist to help them learn to speak and communicate.

How is the disorder assessed by Thomson Kids?

In the first session with our speech therapist, she will interact with your child to understand the following:


  • What your child understands (receptive language).
  • What your child can say (expressive language).
  • Whether your child tries to communicate with others using other non-communicative gestures.
  • Sound development and clarity of speech.
  • Your child's oral-motor status (how the mouth, tongue and palate work together for speech as well as eating and swallowing)

Sometimes, a standardised language test is also administered. Standardised language tests provide an objective way to assess your child’s speech and language development and how he or she performs compared to same-aged peers.

A referral to see our psychologist may be made if a child may be suspected to have other learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or a hearing impairment which could be affecting their language development.

How will an assessment benefit your child?

The evidence is clear that early identification and diagnosis makes a significant impact on a child’s language and learning development. Having a comprehensive clinical picture of a child’s difficulties is crucial for our therapist to help your child overcome their speech and language delays.

If children are not assessed or diagnosed early, they may experience more difficulty overcoming a language delay and face problems in later childhood/life.

With the right intervention strategies, your child can learn to speak and communicate better. The earlier they receive support, the better the chance of them being able to catch up with peers and gain confidence. Our therapists will also work closely with you and your child’s teachers to best understand their condition and support them.

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