He burst into tears. He could not understand what was happening to him. He looked like his friends, but when it came to this one thing, something was wrong. Half an hour ago, his teacher asked him to read a text from the book, but unlike his peers, he couldn’t, even though he’d learned to read three years ago. Then, the teacher asked him an easy question from the text to check his understanding. Yet once again, he couldn’t speak. Then, his face turned red with embarrassment. He felt insulted in front of all of his friends. Then his teacher asked the same question to his other friends; they spoke very fluently. He wished to be like them. The bell rang and all the students went out to play games together, but he sat under a tree all alone. He did not want to play or speak with his peers. He thought that if he could not explain what he wanted to say, other children would pity him or laugh at him.
A week later, they had an exam and his teacher noticed from his writing that he had difficulties in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. The teacher decided to talk with his parents about the problem. His mother said the following:
“When he was very young, I noticed that he was not able to speak like the other children; however, I thought he was going to speak sooner or later. What was the importance of speaking earlier or later for children? There will not be any difference between children after they all learn to talk.
Also, I know that his father spoke very late when he was a child, so I thought that my child would also speak later. But I did not know that it would bring such difficulties for his future.”
As we can understand from this situation, it is very dangerous to ignore children who have speech and language delays. Let’s think about a machine (e.g. a car) that is not working properly. Would we delay its restoration and say, “I should wait and see whether or not it will be fine in a week”? The answer is absolutely not!
However, when it comes to our own children, most people say:
“Let’s see, whether or not he or she will be able to speak once they turn three; if not, then we should go to a language therapist or child psychologist.”
How do we know that this child will be able to speak after they turn three? Even if they might speak after this age, it could be too late to overcome self-confidence and psychological problems. Research shows that speech and language delays are the most common developmental disorders for kids and they affect at least one out of ten children (1).
When considering the importance of language development for children, it can be said that language is a tool that enables people to socialize and express themselves without any extra effort. So, children who have language delays could show aggressive behavior towards other people or they could damage themselves due to their frustration at being unable to express themselves. Over the long term, such difficulties could negatively affect their academic life (2), social-emotional development, and self-confidence (3), as exemplified earlier.
In order to overcome the available negative factors and also to decrease possible future disadvantages, the backgrounds and causes of the problem should be thoroughly examined. There are a variety of factors that can cause speech and language delays and each of these factors should be addressed separately by professionals so as to apply the most appropriate method of treatment.
* Problems that are classified as external could be the cause of a language delay. It should be examined whether or not children have problems in their mouth, tongue, and hearing system. For example, if a child has some degree of hearing loss, it would directly affect his speaking, communication abilities, and social life. Also, in the long term, it could affect his writing skills and academic life. Research shows that early diagnosis of hearing issues and early intervention programs can minimize the disadvantages of language delay. Children experiencing such problems should be seen by a professional. Then, in accordance with their level of hearing issues, the most appropriate intervention should be applied by a speech and language therapist.
* If a child only has a speech delay but does not have any another developmental impairment in their social, motor, or cognitive development, the delay could be due to neurological problems. In this case, it is important to consult a neurologist and then a child psychologist.
* There are also a variety of different factors that could affect children’s language development:
Parent’s behavior: Some parents can be over-protective and this might not allow their child to develop independence. This can be the case if the child refuses to speak and only uses body language to show what they want. This may lead the child to express himself with body language instead of learning verbal language. Parents should encourage their children to express themselves verbally.
Parent-child interaction: It is very important to spend sufficient time with a child via playing games and interacting with them every day. If parents only buy some useful materials for their child’s development, such as books, puzzles, and toys, and then leave them alone, the child will not benefit from these materials. According to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory, children may need assistance from an experienced person when they are trying to do or learn something. Though unable to complete such tasks alone, with help, they can be successful. Because children are learning about the outside word with the aid of games and imitation, both their mother and father should play and interact with them in the flow of daily life. Thus, instead of children looking at a storybook on their own, parents could read it by using vocabulary that is suitable to the child’s age.
Electronic devices and television: It is not recommended that children under two watch television since it directly affects their language and speech development (4). Also, after two years old, children can be introduced to educational programs, but it is very important to restrict their television time and arrange it according to their age.
Poverty: Research shows that there is a significant relationship between poverty and language delay (5). It was found that there is a link between socio economic factors and parental stress which could negatively affect their behavior towards a child. Also, it was found that parents living in poverty are less likely to have a high education level, so they might have a limited vocabulary when interacting with children. As a result, their child’s word count is affected by this situation. Instead of expecting something parents cannot provide, social organizations should take responsibility and detect such at-risk children and provide them with the appropriate materials. Also, parents who have financial problems can use libraries to borrow books for their children and also apply to voluntary institutions for financial support.
Additionally, it is important to consider bilingual children who are learning two languages at the same time. Bilingual children might start to speak a little bit late when comparing them with monolingual children. However, this delay should not be long. Their language should be delayed only several weeks or perhaps months. Importantly, if these children do not use any words, although they are 18 months old, this could be a sign of a serious problem. It may also be seen that bilinguals might confuse two languages and use both languages’ vocabularies when they are speaking. They will usually speak both languages competently when they turn five years old (4).
In the light of our story, if the parents had contacted a professional earlier and had started to solve their child’s problem before he began primary school, this child might not have faced speaking, reading, and academic issues. At the very least, the effects of language delay might have been minimized through the appropriate interventions. Parents who are in similar situations should not ignore their child’s disability and make excuses. Instead, they should accept it, because research shows that accepting a disorder helps all involved to address the problem and produce a solution as quickly as possible. Furthermore, there is no difference found between professionals and parents in terms of applying a method of intervention. Parents can be trained by professionals and learn suitable intervention methods.
Let’s think about what would happen if the same child’s language problem had been noticed earlier and the parents would have decided to contact a professional to learn what the background of the problem was and how they could solve it:
“It was just an ordinary day for him. His teacher asked him to read a text from our book and he started to read the book; while initially his voice was shaky, he took a deep breath and tried to be confident. Finally, he read the text confidently and fluently like his other peers. Then the bell rang and he went out to play games with the other children.”
Fatma Canan is a Child Psychologist and PhD Candidate in the UK.