What’s the Difference Between a Speech Delay and a Language Delay?

When it comes to your child’s speech and language development, many parents find themselves asking, “What’s normal?” How do you know if your toddler has a delay or is simply a “late talker”? And what’s the difference between speech and language, anyway? In this article, we discuss the signs of speech and language delays and share tips on how to support your child’s communication development at home. 

What’s the difference between speech and language?

Speech refers to how we say sounds and words. Speech includes:

  • How we make speech sounds using our mouth, lips, and tongue

  • Our voice, or how we use our vocal folds and breath to make sounds

  • Fluency, or the rhythm and smoothness of how we speak

Language refers to the words we use and how we use them to share our thoughts, wants, and needs. Language includes:

  • Understanding what words mean

  • Knowing how to put words together into sentences

  • Knowing how to talk with other people in a variety of situations

Understanding speech and language milestones

Every child follows their own developmental timeline. However, there are certain speech milestones that children typically meet within an expected age range. For example, by age 1 year, a child is typically putting sounds together to say things like “mimi” and “upup.” And by the time they are 3 years old, toddlers should be using a wide range of sounds in words, like /b/, /n/, /t/, /w/, /g/, /f/, and /h/.

Another part of speech development is the clarity of a child’s speech. Ideally, we want anyone to be able to understand at least 50% of what a child says by the time they’re 4 years old.

The same expectations apply when it comes to a child’s language development. There are certain milestones that children typically meet within an expected age range. For example, between 12 and 18 months, a child should respond to their name, follow simple directions, and begin saying new words on their own. At around 2 years old, we expect toddlers to have at least 5 to 10 words that they use regularly and spontaneously. Two-year-olds typically begin to use very simple two-word phrases, like “I want,” “Give me,” or “More please.”

What is a speech delay?

As we mentioned above, there is a typical order in which each speech sound develops and a range of ages when a child should be able to say each sound correctly. A speech delay is when a toddler doesn’t meet the typical speech milestones. In other words, they develop speech sounds in an expected order, but at a slower rate than normal.

A speech delay can be caused by a number of factors, including oral-motor problems such as trouble coordinating the tongue, lips, and mouth to pronounce sounds properly.

What is a language delay?

There is also a typical order in which language skills develop and a range of ages when a child should be using certain language concepts. A language delay is when a child develops language skills in the right order, but at a slower (or delayed) rate than expected. 

How can you tell if it’s a speech delay or a language delay?

It helps to understand some of the signs of a speech or language delay. For example, a child with a speech delay is often hard to understand. They use words and phrases to express their ideas, but they have trouble forming the correct sounds for clear speech.

A toddler with a language delay may make the correct sounds and pronounce some words, but they can’t form phrases or sentences that make sense. They may have a hard time following simple directions or understanding what words mean.

What should I do if I think my child has a delay? 

Some children have either a speech delay or a language delay, and some have both. If you think your child may have a speech or language delay, trust your gut! Contact a speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist. A speech therapist is the most qualified professional to evaluate and diagnose your child. And the sooner your child begins treatment, the more quickly they’ll make progress toward their milestones.

Speech therapy will include caregiver education and training so you can learn how to help your child at home. While treatment will be individualized to your child, below are some general speech and language tips you can start trying today.

11 tips to support your child's speech and language development

Many studies have shown that parents and caregivers play an essential role in helping their child develop speech and language. Think about it: Children learn to communicate during their everyday activities and conversations. And you spend the most time with your child. So, no one is better positioned to help improve their speech or language delay!

Try these recommendations:

1 It may sound (or feel) silly, but start talking to your child at birth

Even newborns benefit from hearing speech. 

2 Respond to your baby’s coos and babbles positively

Interact with them as if they’re talking to you!

3 Play simple games with your baby

Peek-a-boo and patty-cake are great choices.

4 Talk to your child a lot

Even a simple act, like narrating what you’re doing, can be helpful. “I’m putting your yogurt in the bowl!”

5 Read books aloud

If your kiddo loses interest, then just talk about the pictures.

6 Sing to your child and provide them with music

Learning songs helps your child learn new words. Songs also build memory skills, listening skills, and the expression of ideas with words.

7 Expand on what your child says

For example, if your child says, “Bluey,” you can say, “Here is Bluey!”

8 Describe for your child what they are doing, feeling, and hearing in the course of the day

For example, “You are hungry” or “You’re playing with your trains.”

9 Give your child your full attention when they’re talking to you

When you ask them a question, give them enough time to respond before filling in the silence.

10 Ask your child lots of questions

Give them a chance to tell you what they're doing or what they think.

11 Don’t point out or correct your child’s grammar mistakes

Instead, just model good grammar by saying phrases correctly yourself.

Expressable has also created a series of videos with helpful at-home exercises to get you started. You'll find them all here.

If you have concerns about a language or speech delay, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It has been proven time and time again that early intervention is key. Talk with your pediatrician first, but if you have concerns, contact a speech therapist. They are specifically trained in diagnosing communication issues, and speech and language delays can be effectively treated!

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