Most, but not all, late-talking toddlers catch up

Most, but not all, late-talking toddlers catch up

Good news for parents of late-talking children. The world’s largest study to date on language emergence has shown that 80 percent of children with language delays at age 2 will catch up by age 7. 

Well, mostly good news. The same study also showed that for one in five late-talking toddlers, language delays persist.

The findings are part of a 10-year multiple-study research project directed by Mabel Rice, Fred and Virginia Merrill Distinguished Professor of Advanced Studies and director of LSI’s Center for Biobehavioral Neurosciences in Communication Disorders. Funding comes from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and totals nearly $6 million.

Since 2002 Rice has worked with colleagues at Curtin University in Perth to study the language development of single-born and twin children in Western Australia. Their focus is children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) to pinpoint possible environmental, neuro-developmental and genetic risk factors.

While most late-talking toddlers in their sample of 1766 children showed considerable resiliency, more intriguing is what happened to the boys.

“We know that two-year-old boys are three times as likely as girls to have a language delay,” Rice said. “But we found no differences between girls and boys by the age of 7.”

“Some kind of mechanism kicks in for the boys,” Rice said. “They have to learn language much faster than the girls to catch up. But at around age 7, the mechanism gets turned off, the boys don’t keep learning faster. Boys and girls stay on the same trajectory.” Rice said this is a fertile field for future research to learn what turns the language “maturation mechanisms” on and off. But what about the one in five children whose language delays persist? Intervention and enrichment activities are essential, Rice urges.

A take-home point for parents: If your two-year old isn’t talking, it’s not your fault. The latest project supported earlier studies that a mother’s education, income, parenting style or mental health have no impact on a child’s likelihood of being a late talker.

The next phase of Rice’s research will focus on a possible genetic basis of SLI. Rice said, “If one out of five children were at risk for a medical condition, we’d really want to know more about it.”