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Language delay is a failure in children to develop language abilities on the usual age-appropriate for their developmental timetable. Language delay is distinct from speech delay, in which the development of the mechanical and motor aspects of speech production is delayed.
Oral communication is a two-stage process. The first stage is to encode the message into a set of words and sentence structures that convey the required meaning, i.e. into language. In the second stage, language is translated into motor commands that control the articulators (organs and structures such as the lungs, vocal cords, mouth, tongue, teeth, etc.), thereby creating speech, i.e. orally-expressed language.
Because language and speech are independent, they may be individually delayed. For example, a child may be delayed in speech (i.e., unable to produce intelligible speech sounds), but not delayed in language. However a child with a language delay typically has not yet been able to use language to formulate material to speak; he or she is therefore likely to have a delay in speech as well.
Language delay is commonly divided into receptive and expressive categories. Receptive language refers to the process of understanding what is said to the subject. Expressive language refers to the use of words and sentences to communicate messages to others. Both categories are essential to effective communication.
Language delay is a risk factor for other types of developmental delay, including social, emotional, and cognitive delay. Some children may grow out of these deficits, even coming to excel where they once lagged, while others do not. One particularly common result of language delay is delayed or inadequate acquisition of reading skills. Reading depends upon an ability to code and decode script (i.e., match speech sounds with symbols, and vice versa). If a child is still struggling to master language and speech, it is very difficult to learn another level of complexity (writing). Thus, it is crucial that children have facility with language to be successful readers.
Neuroscientist Steven Pinker postulates that a certain form of language delay may be associated with exceptional and innate analytical prowess in some individuals, such as Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Edward Teller.
Language delays are the most frequent developmental delays, and can occur for many reasons. A delay can be due to being a “late bloomer”, “late talker”, or a more serious problem. The most common causes of speech delay include
- Hearing loss
- Slow development
- Intellectual disability
Such delays can occur in conjunction with a lack of mirroring of facial responses, unresponsiveness or unawareness of certain noises, a lack of interest in playing with other children or toys, or no pain response to stimuli.
Other causes include:
- Psychosocial deprivation - The child doesn't spend enough time talking with adults. Research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
- Television viewing is associated with delayed language development. Children who watched television alone were 8.47 times more likely to have language delay when compared to children who interacted with their caregivers during television viewing. As recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of 2 should watch no television at all, and after age 2 watch no more than one to two hours of quality programming a day. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged. Parents should engage children in more conversational activities to avoid television-related delays to their children language development, which could impair their intellectual performance.
- Stress during pregnancy is associated with language delay.
- Being a twin increases the chance of speech and language delays. Reasons for this are thought to include less one-on-one time with parents, premature birth, and the companionship of their twin sibling reducing their motivation to talk to others.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Autism (a developmental disorder) - There is strong evidence that autism is commonly associated with language delay. Asperger syndrome, which is on the autistic spectrum, however, is not associated with language delay.
- Selective mutism (the child just doesn't want to talk)
- Cerebral palsy (a movement disorder caused by brain damage)
- Genetic abnormalities - In 2005, researchers found a connection between expressive language delay and a genetic abnormality: a duplicate set of the same genes that are missing in sufferers of Williams-Beuren syndrome. Also so called XYY syndrome can often cause speech delay.
- Correlation with male sex, previous family history, and maternal education has been demonstrated.
Studies have failed to find clear evidence that language delay can be prevented by training or educating health care professionals in the subject. Overall, some of the reviews show positive results regarding interventions in language delay, but are not curative.
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