Language Delays in Children: Definition, Examples & Types

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Find out just what a language delay is and some of the potential factors that cause this problem. An example is provided and a short, anti-Teletubbies quiz follows.

Language Delays

We've all met a young child who didn't seem to want to talk. Their parents often explain they're just shy or feeling overwhelmed and, more often than not, this is quite true. Unfortunately, for some children, there is a greater problem that is causing their language to delay in development. In this lesson, we'll discuss just what a language delay is, the different types of delays, and provide some examples of language delays in children.

The first key point that needs to be made is the difference between language and speech. Language is the ability to acquire and use a socially-shared set of rules for communication. Language is composed of several basic rules, such as attributing meaning ('pig' can refer to both the animal and someone behaving poorly), developing new words (e.g., speed, speedily, speeding), and how to combine these words in a way which makes sense. Speech is the verbal mechanism of communicating language. One can have a delay in language and not a delay in speech and vice versa.

A language delay occurs when a child's language is developing at a slower rate than traditional developmental milestones. This has been found to affect five to ten percent of preschool children. For example, by approximately 18 months a child should have a vocabulary of 5-20 words and be able to refer to some people and objects by specific names. If, at 18 months, a child still isn't speaking any words and doesn't recognize some people by name they may be experiencing a language delay.

Types of Delays

There are many reasons children experience a delay in language development, but for simplicity we'll break them down into three categories.


One of the most common causes of language delay in children is hearing loss. Since most early communication in humans is verbal, even a small impairment in hearing ability can delay a child's ability to develop an understanding of language. As soon as potential hearing problems are noticed, a child should begin speech and language therapy. Normally, around 6 months of age a child start to babble in a manner imitating speech and will respond to particular sounds. If parents don't notice this occurring they should have their child's hearing checked.


A number of neurological issues will inhibit language development. The most common problem is something called developmental speech and language disorder, which is a catch-all term for a number of neurological issues surrounding the processing of language. Children with this disorder will have challenges producing speech sounds, difficulty in understanding others' speech, and problems using language to communicate. A similar disorder called apraxia of speech involves the brain being unable to coordinate the muscles to form words. The child may have an understanding of language but will be unable to communicate this understanding unless given other outlets (e.g., drawings, writing).

Autism also manifests early with language difficulties in children. Autistic children develop thinking and language skills differently and delay in language is often one of the earliest signs. Other neurological problems that delay language include muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury.


Many children delay in their language development because they are in an environment that doesn't support healthy use of language. Young children learn much of their language abilities from those around them, so if they are in an environment without much use of language they will develop slowly. The fancy term for this is psychosocial deprivation. In other words, if children don't spend much time conversing with adults they won't be exposed to enough language to develop their skills. For instance, children who watch television by themselves are more than eight times as likely to have a language delay when compared to children who interact with adults while watching television. Baby Einstein videos are not a substitute for meaningful social interaction!

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