*Updated January 2022*
While practicing as a speech-language pathologist I often heard parents say “oh, my child’s just a late talker, according to our Doctor”.
But what is a late talker exactly and is there reason to worry?
Let me explain.
A Late Talker Is:
- A child typically between 18 and 30 months
- A child who understands many words and is able to follow simple directions
- A child who engages in play and demonstrates age appropriate social skills
- A child who does not have any developmental or physical delays such as Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, etc.
- A child who simply isn’t using any, or as many words as would be expected for Their age. This is considered an expressive language delay.
Late talking children often tend to be boys (although girls can be late talkers as well).
Babies born prematurely or those with a low birth weight are at a higher risk for being late talkers.
In many cases, it is common to find that there is a family history of late talking or speech-language delays.
How Many Words Should A Toddler Be Using?
*This article may contain affiliate links*
By 18 months children should be using about 20+ words consisting of:
Nouns: Shoe, ball, mommy etc.
Action Words: Eat, drink, sleep, etc.
Descriptive Words: Big, little, cold, hot, etc.
Preposition: In, on, up, etc.
However, don’t be alarmed if your 18 month old is only using nouns and action words.
In the next 6 months they will continue to learn to say more words including descriptive words and prepositions.
You will also see pronouns emerging (e.g. my, mine, you, she, he).
Word combinations usually can be heard between 18 and 24 months.
Children typically need 50+ words made up of nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions and pronouns before they will start to spontaneously combine words to make simple 2 word phrases (e.g eat cookie).
If your child isn’t using many words, download my FREE checklist “The 85 Most Common First Words”.
Use this list to check off words your child is already using and refer to it to come up with ideas for simple words he may start saying soon if he hears the word enough.
Between 24 and 30 months a child should be using approximately 50-100 words.
Novel two to three word combinations such as “drink juice”, “mommy big shoe”, “light on”, etc. are being used more regularly to communicate.
In order for a phrase to be considered novel, it must not be a memorized phrase such as “good night” or word repetitions like “bye, bye”.
For more information on what a child should be doing at a certain age, head over to ages and stages of language development.
If, based on this information your child falls into the “late talker” category and you are not working with a Speech-Language Pathologist, be sure to get the book “It Takes Two To Talk” by Speech-Language Pathologist of the Hanen Centre, Elaine Weitzman.
This book is packed with information and strategies that you can implement at home right away!
I always recommended this book to parents of young children with mild to moderate speech and language delays!
Don’t let the price tag discourage you. It is well worth every penny!
Late Talkers Will Catch Up – But Not Always
I have seen several articles in the media leading readers to believe that it’s OK to take a “wait and see” approach and that pretty much all late talkers end up being just fine.
Here is an example of one of these articles: Late Talkers Do Fine As They Grow Up .
However, this study and others like it, mainly look at behavioral and emotional outcomes.
It’s a given that a late talking child may develop some behavioral and emotional issues.
They are frustrated that they cannot communicate to have their needs met.
Thus, they may resort to hitting, biting, crying, screaming etc.
Once they start talking, these behaviors usually subside.
What these studies fail to look at are the language outcomes.
Therefore, based on these studies alone, there is no way of saying that late talkers will be fine with regards to language development.
An observation I made while working as a speech pathologist was that several children who I was seeing for speech delays (not producing sounds properly) were often described as late talkers by their parents during our initial assessment session.
While I was working with them, their language skills were not the issue because they had “caught up”.
But because they didn’t really speak until they were older than 24 months, they didn’t have the practice producing many of the sounds their peers did.
So even though they didn’t have lasting language delays, they had speech production delays.
Studies, such as this one by Ellis EM and Thal DJ. (2008) found that about 70-80% of children who were late talkers (purely an expressive language delay) did catch up to their peers with regards to language development, without any form of language therapy.
But where does that leave the other 20-30%?
Sharma M., Purdy, S.C. and Kelly, A.S. (2009) found that the children whose language skills did not catch up and did not receive language therapy continued to struggle with expressive language as well as reading and writing once they entered school.
There is another group of children who do seem to catch up in language skills without any intervention.
When these children enter school they are speaking in sentences and are able to communicate and socialize with their peers.
In spite of that, Rice, M. L., Taylor, C. L., and Zubrick, S.R. (2008) found that these children often fall behind their peers in some aspects of language development such as grammar and language complexity.
They may also have smaller vocabularies as compared to their peers.
This is the group of children that concerns speech-language pathologists the most.
These children will continue to struggle as they get older, but the struggles will be considered minor.
They typically will not qualify for any type of language intervention once they enter school because the delay is not considered severe enough to warrant intervention.
Yet, as the child gets older it will become more apparent that they aren’t quite at the same level as their peers.
Early language intervention occurs during a critical time in a child’s development, which is between the ages of 0 and 3 years.
Children can learn so many skills during this time in their lives that will set the foundation for skills they haven’t even acquired yet.
If your child is a late talker, my opinion is to always have them assessed by a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist.
The speech pathologist may advise a “wait and see” approach based on their evaluation or they might suggest a few therapy sessions or perhaps a home program where the parents follow a plan set out by the therapist and check in every few weeks/months to see if goals are being met.
Red Flags Indicating That A Late Talker Requires Therapy
As I mentioned above, about 20-30% of children do not completely outgrow their expressive language delay and will have ongoing difficulties once they enter school.
It is impossible to predict which children will fall into this 20-30%.
But there are some red flags that you can be on the lookout for.
If your child (18-30 months) has any of these in addition to not using as many words as expected, please have your child seen for a speech and language evaluation. The sooner the better!
- history of repeated ear infections
- quiet as a baby
- doesn’t respond to name when called
- limited use of gestures to communicate (gesture use is a precursor to spoken language)
- limited number of sounds produced when attempting to “talk”
- difficulty with pretend play
- limited social interactions with peers
- family history of language and/or learning delays
- unable to follow age appropriate directions or sometimes having difficulty understanding what is being said to him/her
- words that are used tend to only be nouns and verbs. Prepositions, pronouns and adjectives are never or rarely used.
*In order to combine words into phrases and sentences, a child’s vocabulary must be made up of more than just nouns and verbs.*
To reiterate, studies are showing that “late talkers” do not always catch up with regards to language development when intervention is not sought out.
Approximately 20-30% of children do not catch up to their peers, even when the delay is purely an expressive language delay – meaning they do not have any of the red flags mentioned above.
I know that Einstein didn’t talk until he was 5 (or something like that) and he turned out to be a genius.
Of course this is possible as we know that 70-80% of children who are late talkers turn out to be just fine, or even gifted, without any type of intervention.
But, since we cannot really predict which children will fall into the group that will have struggles once they enter school, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry and have your child seen by a speech-language pathologist?
If nothing else but to ease your mind and know that you have done what you can to help your child!
I hope that this has answered the question “what is a late talker?”
If you still have any questions or have any thoughts on this topic you would like to share, please post a comment below.
Thank you very much for this useful information.
My 16-month old does not yet say any words. She communicates effectively in other ways (and this is something that people have often commented on) – pointing, shaking her head clearly for “no” and doing a sort-of giggle for “yes”, and recently using a few signs (milk, more, book, daddy). She can follow two-step instructions and is able to correctly point to almost all of the pictures in her ‘100 objects’ book (she insists on doing this a lot – it’s not my doing!) as well as picking out a the correct coloured pencil and so on. She enjoys simple games like peekaboo and hide and seek. So I do feel her comprehension is good. We read lots of stories, I talk to her and narrate what we are doing, we sing a huge amount (and she can join in with the actions to a few nursery rhymes). I ask her to say words and she will almost always say ‘da’ in response – I repeat the word back to her (“what’s that? It’s a dog! Can you say ‘dog’?” “Da.” “Yes, ‘dog’.”) She does babble using other sounds. She once received antibiotics for a possible ear infection, and I had glue ear a lot as a child (but as far as I’m aware no language delay).
She was slightly slow with her gross motor development, but suddenly caught up quickly. During this time she stopped saying any ‘words’ (“Can you say cat?” “Da!”) as if she was concentrating on this other skill. So I’m hopeful that now that she’s mastered walking (she’s recently made a lot of progress with her gross motor skills and physical confidence) that she might turn her attention back to language. Does this seem plausible?
Thanks so much in advance for any thoughts.
To clarify, when she stopped saying words while talking, I would ask “can you say cat?” for example, and she wouldn’t respond with anything (even the usual ‘da’).
Your daughter sounds just like my daughter did at that age. I strongly suggest you have her hearing checked by a pediatric audiologist. I had my daughter assessed when she was 13 months old as she pretty much only said “da” for everything, but just like your daughter she understood everything and could follow directions. My daughter also didn’t have a history or ear infections, just one or 2. But the audiologist found that she did have fluid in her ear that was affecting her hearing. She had tubes put in when she was about 16 months old and by 18 months we really started noticing an improvement with her speech. You can read all about ear tubes in the article I wrote here.
You are also right in thinking that her speech could have taken a back seat to the gross motor developments she is making. This is often the case for many children when they fall behind in one area while another is progressing.
While you are waiting to have her hearing assessed, take a look at these articles for some more pointers on how to try to get her talking!
17 Tips To Help A Toddler With A Speech Delay
Straightforward Speech Therapy Activities For Toddlers You Can Do At Home
Let me know if you have any other questions!
I know this post is a little old, but I have a “late talker”, 18 months next week. She is very limited in her talking, says bird, cat, meow, dada, and can hiss like a snake when I ask “what does the snake say?”. She follows 1 and 2 step direction, “please put the dirty laundry in the basket” and “can you get the Hungry Caterpillar book and bring it here?” and “go upstairs to wake DaDa”. She’s very intelligent, loves to be read to, understands colors (where’s the blue boat, in a crowd of 5 different-colored boats). I’m a little worried, but due to the pandemic, I expect her to be a little behind as she really only has access to my husband and I, our 2 cats, and my parents. So, not much exposure to different people talking, and no peer interaction. She does get very frustrated because she’s often not understood, so I would like to help her be able to express herself more so she gets less frustrated. I have a few questions:
1. How clear should her words be? For example, LO’s cat and dad sound the same to the untrained ear, but I can tell the difference because I’m with her all day.
2. Her hearing is perfect, we read to her a lot, we sing a lot of songs (little piggy, where is thumb kin, its bits spider, and other nursery rhymes with and without hand gesture), I do the “up? you want to be picked up? up?” and “ball! yes, that is a beautiful ball. look, the ball can bounce.” etc, so she hears a word repetitively. But I’m worried that none of that is working. What more can we do (I tried sign language but it’s not sticking)?
3. Have you noticed that there are more children, or do you expect that there are more children who are behind in their language skills due to the pandemic and stay at home nature of 2020?
Thanks for your comment. Based on the information you provided it does sound like your daughter is a classic late talker.
That being said, I still always tell parents whose children at 18 months don’t have about 15 to 20 words to seek the advice of a registered speech-language pathologist.
Children’s speech sound production is not expected to be clear at 18 months, in fact it’s only about 25% intelligible (meaning that a stranger probably only catches about 25% of what an 18 month olds says). Here is some more information about sound clarity.
It does sound like you are doing all of the things I would recommend. How do you know her hearing is perfect? Has it been assessed? Also is there any history of ear infections? You are most likely right, that her hearing is not an issue. But, even a mild hearing loss (usually caused by the presence of fluid in the middle ear) can affect some children’s ability to learn to speak.
Sign language is like any other language. It takes time, practice and consistency to learn. If you are interested in taking another look at sign language, here are 2 articles I have written about it:
Baby Sign Language Basics – What You Need To Know!
Teach Your Baby Sign Language: It’s Easier Than You Think!
I have not noticed or heard anything about the pandemic having a negative affect on the speech and language skills of children. In fact, a new study just came out about children’s language actually improving during the pandemic. Here is the link to that study, you can scroll down to the discussion section to get the gist of it. Many children do not have much exposure to other children until they start Kindergarten and have no delays, so I think it would be more of a coincidence. Or possibly because parents are at home and spending more time with their children they are more aware of what is going on in their child’s development.
I always recommend the book It Takes Two To Talk for parents of late talkers. It has so much information in it! You are doing some of the things that are recommended but it lays out the steps of language development and how you can set actionable goals for your child’s communication.
I hope this helps!
Hello! Question for you. My daughter is 16 months and she babbles, uses signs for many words, follows 1 step instructions and some two step, understands prepositions and verbs, but she doesn’t “talk.” She’s a very good socializer with peers and people and she does say words randomly but then won’t say them again. Should I be concerned?
There is a good chance your daughter is a late talker, but as I mention in the article it is better to have a young child assessed by a speech-language pathologist whose expressive language is delayed rather than playing the “wait and see game”. That being said, you could wait until she is around 18 months old as a language explosion often happens at that time. If by 18 months she does not have at least 20 words, I would go ahead with an assessment. Most free programs have long waiting lists so you could always get her on one now and cancel the appointment if things change.
If she has a history of ear infections I would definitely have her hearing checked by an audiologist. Even a small amount of fluid that is consistently present in the ears can cause a mild hearing loss making language production difficult.
Let me know if you have any other questions.
Hello! I definitely need help. I have a three year old boy, but he is still talks like a one year old. He still doesn’t call me mum, or his father daddy. He cries when he wants something, does not follow instructions, cannot construct a simple sentence but he can sing his nursery rhymes, can count up to 20, and can also say ABC up to Z but only says it when he wants to. Nobody can make him say it. I am really getting worried and frustrated. He has been going to a speech therapist since he was 2, once a week but his speech is still not improving.
I am sorry to hear that your son is struggling so much with both expressive and receptive language. Has his hearing been checked by an audiologist? Since he is being seen by a speech therapist I assume this would have been looked at. Has his speech therapist recommended having any testing done by either a developmental pediatrician or educational psychologist? As he has been receiving speech therapy since he was 2 with little to no improvement I would begin by asking for further evaluation.
Also, consider teaching him some sign language in order to increase his vocabulary and expressive language skills.
I have written several articles on the subject which you can read below.
Baby Sign Language Basics – What You Need To Know!
Teach Your Baby Sign Language: It’s Easier Than You Think!
Baby Signs® Complete Starter Kit – Your Baby Sign Language Adventure Begins!
All the best!
My grandson is 5 and has been in speech therapy for 2 years. He does understand you but does not hold a conversation. He does not have pronunciation issues and can sing songs clearly. He gets frustrated at school and has melt downs by crying uncontrollably which is not a problem at home or in preschool. He displays clever behaviors when building things. He has no interest in drawing coloring or writing. He is very loving and loves to play. School is ostracizing him. He is getting tested in November. His kindergarten teacher told my daughter to reschedule his speech therapy after School and since then he has been sent to special Ed. He loved preschool and hates kindegarten
I’m sorry to hear that your grandson is being ostracized in Kindergarten. Has your daughter discussed this with his teacher?
I am also curious to know if his speech therapist is using any alternate forms of communication with him? It could be something as simple as him handing/pointing to a picture in order to communicate or even introducing some sign language? Giving him another mode of communication can help to ease some of his frustrations while he is still learning to communicate with words. If you are interested in knowing more about sign language (even if it is just something he is doing at home for now) you can take a look at the articles I wrote about it.
Teach Your Baby Sign Language: It’s Easier Than You Think!
Teach Your Baby Sign Language: It’s Easier Than You Think!
It is good that he is being tested in November! I hope this testing will shed some more light on your grandson’s struggles with communication.
I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.
But feel free to reach out if you have anymore questions.
I’m a former elementary school teacher, and I can remember working with some of my 2nd and 3rd graders who received speech services. Some of them managed to catch up and exit the speech program and were fine, academically, but others really struggled with overall language arts skills (mostly in phonemic awareness), thus putting them behind their peers in a traditional school setting.
So naturally, I can’t stress highly enough the value of a SLP evaluation of a child whose speech is not progressing as normal.
My son just turned 2 and has a very limited (50 word) vocabulary, most of his words are difficult to understand, and he is not combining words yet. So we have an eval already set up. I would rather get him the help he needs NOW, as a toddler, than wait until he’s school-age and struggling — even though I plan on homeschooling him along with his older sister.
My husband thinks it’s unnecessary, but he himself had speech services as a toddler with Early Intervention as he actually has Cerebral Palsy and struggled to speak due to his disability. We do have a family history of learning disabilities and speech in my family. So I suspect that between genetics and my very chatty daughter, my little guy is in need of a little extra speech TLC.
If you have any concerns whatsoever, get your child some help! It certainly does not hurt! Every time I question if setting up this speech eval is the “right” thing to do, I meet someone else who shares how he or she received speech as a kid and benefited from it and talked about as much as my son does now.
My son doesn’t have to grow up and become an English major like me or my husband, but he does need to know how to communicate, and I can see how difficult things are getting for him now that he is two and trying to do simple things, like say stop or go on a swing or tell his nosy big sister to back off of his favorite toy cars — and can’t say these things. But we will get there — and I’m going to make sure he can speak clearly as best as I can! 😀
Thanks so much for sharing your story. I think this will be very beneficial for many readers.
When you mentioned your son being 2 and having 50 words I thought to myself, that is considered average. But then you mentioned he isn’t combining words and isn’t very clear which made me think a speech eval is the right way to go. Especially with the family history.
It is much easier for a child to “catch up” to their peers when therapy is provided early.
I wish you and your son all the best!
You are on top of things and with your background I am sure he will do very well!
First of all, Tanya, did I read somewhere recently that Einstein suffered from Asperger’s? Which may prove, as you say, that not all late talking children should be treated with the ‘wait and see’ approach.
Einstein ended up being the genius that he became, but it may not quite be the same for all late talkers, so yes, I completely agree when you say to approach a speech and language therapist for advice.
One last thing to add. When I was little, my parents took me to a specialist due to my stutter – my dad would stutter when anxious, and I picked on that. My stutter lasted till I started school, but once I was allowed to mix with peers more regularly, other kids of my age, the stutter went. I’m now fluent at 2 languages, and have been able to make my son bilingual from his birth 17 years ago 🙂
I think I actually read that somewhere as well, that Einstein may have had Asperger’s.
It’s great your parents took to to see a speech-language therapist when you began to stutter. Stuttering often runs in families so it is not uncommon to see a child stutter when one of his parents stutters.
It sounds like you learned some great techniques that allowed you to speak smoothly!
This is an extremely informative blog and I’ve bookmarked it to share with my daughter who is expecting her first baby next month.
I have a friend with twins who are now 3 but as they were developing, the little girl spoke much earlier than her brother. She could put words together into little sentences much much earlier than he could. We all assumed it was either he had nothing to say yet or boys develop a little later than girls do.
Thanks for your comment. I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the information I’m sharing.
With twins it’s not uncommon for one to speak before the other. However the slow to talk twin should catch up fairly quickly. If he/she still isn’t saying my by the age of 2 I would recommend a speech-language evaluation.
My 3 year old daughter has not been able to speak properly using normal words. She’s very talkative though but in her own baby language. She understands partially when I speak to her and she reacts accordingly most of the time and she’s also very active.
I’m planning to send her to pre-school next year. I know it’s too early, but since she loves coloring and activities and my local pre-school accepts toddlers 4 years and above.
So, my question is, would it be ok for me to send her, or just wait another year or two when she’s fully able to communicate properly?
The reason I’m asking is because that, I’m not sure whether this is going to stress her out or not, for not being able to communicate properly with her teachers and friends yet.
Would appreciate to hear your comments on this.
By the way, thank you for this post, Tanya.
I think it is a great idea to send your daughter to pre-school. Just be sure to pick a play based (the more child led the better) than academic based one. I wrote an article all about preschools and daycares and what to look for. You can read it here.
It may be worth it to go to one a bit further away if it would be better for your daughter. Unless your local one is play based. Then even better. I would suggest going to the preschool with your daughter and spending an hour or so there to get a real feel for it.
Have you had your daughter assessed by a Speech-Language Pathologist? If you haven’t please do that as soon as possible. It would also be worth it to have her hearing checked by an Audiologist.
Please let me know if you have any other questions.
My oldest son was a “late bloomer” and did not talk much at all until he was at least two. He didn’t have any of the warning signs you listed, and by the time he was three, there was no problem. He talked up a storm. I guess it just took him a while to decide when to talk. I really think that he was using it as extra attention, and luckily he was a sweet little boy and didn’t throw tantrums or display bad behavior because he couldn’t talk. So I guess, some just don’t talk (maybe in their head?) until they are ready…a little bit stubborn maybe? LOL
I am happy to hear that your son was in the 70-80% of children who did not have any long term issues as a result of being a late talker. You are very lucky that he did not display any negative behaviors as a result of not being able to talk.
I hear many parents say that they think their child is lazy or stubborn, but I have to disagree with this. If a child could talk, he/she would. It is much easier to get wants and needs met through talking. And young children do not have the foresight to decide not to talk to prove a point or something similar. If a child is not talking (when they should be) it is because they can’t. Unfortunately we do not know why some children take longer to speak than others. And, like I mentioned in the article, for many children they will end up talking and be just fine. However, a small percentage (20-40%) of children won’t be that lucky and there is no way to predict which group a child will fall into, since not all children will have the red flags I discussed.
Hi thanks so much for valuable information. I will show this article to a friend of mine. She thinks her baby is speaking very few words and is concerned about its development.
My brother was a late talker and didn’t have any problems. I don’t remember how long it took him to speak, but I remember he jumped really quickly and caught up with ease.
You are right, people should look for a speech-language pathologist. It’s very difficult for lay people to identify a serious problem. And the sooner, the better…
Thanks for your comment. I didn’t write this article to scare people or to drum up business for Speech-Language Pathologists. I really want to make parents aware that yes, there is a range of what is considered average development and each child does develop differently from the next. However, language development (including vocabulary and the ability for combine words to form sentences) is a good indicator of a child’s future success.
I am happy to hear that your brother, despite being a late talker, went on to be just fine. So he would have been in the 70-80% of children who are late to talk but have no lasting effects of that.