A natural part of early parenthood is to occasionally find yourself comparing children with their peers. Even knowing that all kids develop individually, it doesn’t stop those feelings of concern when your colleague’s daughter is talking up a storm while your child is taking a bit longer to become so verbal. Research has shown that verbal development tends to be slower for boys than for girls, but it does not need to be like this! To that end, this article outlines the risks created when late talking boys are not assisted, and how parents can instigate positive language growth in the face of negative statistics.
Statistics Warn Us That Boys are Usually Slower to Talk. Children naturally vary in the time taken to reach language milestones, and gender has been shown to be partly responsible for this variability. Girls outperform boys in nearly all linguistic aspects, according to Hyde & Linn’s Meta-Analysis of Gender Differences in Verbal Ability (1988). Your daughter will understand words spoken to her before boys, start talking two months earlier, and will continue building speech at a greater rate right through toddlerhood. For instance, girls at 16 months of age will produce up to 100 words, while boys struggle at around 30 words. Although boys are predisposed to talk later, it doesn’t mean that we as parents shouldn’t be encouraging them to reach the same milestones as our daughters. Check out our Developmental Ages and Stages Guide for a clear idea of the language milestones that you can challenge your son(s) to aspire to. You’ll see that a wide range of timings exists within the developmental guidelines, but it’s quite understandable if you still find yourself asking “does it really matter when my boy learns to talk?”
What are The Risks if Boys are Late Talkers? Without a solid base of communication skills early in life, boys are at risk of being left behind academically and socially, which in turn can affect their self-motivation and self-esteem. Research (not-to-mention common-sense) shows a strong correlation between early communication skills and later language: “Communication skills through the first two years of life strongly predict language at age 5,” explains Dr. Gina Lebedeva of the University of Washington. Left untreated, late talking boys risk developing a language delay that continues throughout their school years and into adulthood. These on-going difficulties with language are associated with problems learning to read and write, impeded academic performance, limitations to employment opportunities and difficulties with social relationships. So if a preschool boy is really lagging behind in his speech and language development, it’s a scary oversight to assume it’s just because he’s a boy and that all will balance out in time. He may require speech-language therapy and certainly requires caring intervention from his family. It helps to know the theory at this point: The first step in intervening is to understand the reasons why boys’ language tends to fall behind that of their female peers.
Why are Boys Likely to be Slower to Develop Language? Boys tend to relish non-communicative play such as construction or playing with vehicles, meaning that they can easily be left playing by themselves and out of conversations. So with wee fellows being more interested in tanks than talks, it means parents may not notice when they are left to their own devices as boys will not necessarily complain. Compare this to girls on the other hand, who are early lovers of language and masters of mimicry, zooming ahead of boys on imitative behaviours such as the copying of speech sounds and facial expressions. Research shows that girls have a greater sensitivity to the sound of human voices and seem to actually prefer it to other sounds. Play a musical toy and you’ll see no difference between newborn girls and boys, but when you talk, the girls will be more likely to become engaged. Bear in mind that early development is not all “doom and gloom” for boys! Their gross motor skills take off during the preschool years, at which point they outpace their female peers in nearly all measures of physical ability.
As a parent, it can be easy to slip into the trap of reinforcing the expectation that young and physically able boys do not need to talk. Unfortunately, this means that they may not receive as much exposure to words and the expectation on them is reduced. Unless parents build their sons into strong demonstrators of language, this cycle of expectations and resultant language can continue on to academic settings (Kindergarten, Preschool, daycare etc. and subsequent schooling). Take inspiration from the ideas below, then put great language-building habits into place today.
Turning Late Talking Boys into Brilliant Speakers: How Parents Can Help. The more you interact with your toddler, the more opportunities he is likely to encounter to learn how to talk. Provide prime talking time by finding out what excites your son as an individual and engaging in that activity together. As you observe his play, wait and listen for his cues of interest. Once you know he is focussed, you can explain or label the items he is playing with and be confident that he’ll be receptive! Not sure how to pique his interest? Here’s a hint from veteran boy-parents… they love motion! According to Psychologists at England’s University of Cambridge, boys prefer to watch mechanical motion over human motion. Furthermore, baby boys are more proficient at keeping track of moving objects, figuring out the laws of motion up to two months before girls do. So if you want to engage your son, roll a ball across your living room and watch him chase it down with glee. Here are more tried-and-tested strategies that you as a parent can do to encourage your little talker:
Talk to your son as much and as often as possible.
Have a 10-minute period each day that you set aside for interacting with your son. Physically kneel down at his level for greater eye-contact and, as mentioned above, join him in an activity you know he loves.
Expose your son to various opportunities to hear other people talking. When the chance arises, model what he could say in the current situation.
Specifically praise your boy when he responds to you, using your excited tone of voice and appropriately energised language: “Wow what a smart idea!”
Show your son the meaning of words by matching what you do to what you say. You could say “Shoes off” as you pull off his shoes. Then “socks off”, while removing his socks.
Have fun!! The more fun your toddler has when learning new words, the more likely he is to carry on using them.
Unless there is an underlying language-related disorder, boys will respond to this type of persistent daily input from parents and carers. Have you been investing time into your toddler without seeing results? Instead of adopting a “sit-back-and-wait” approach, we recommend getting help for toddlers who are late to talk as early as possible.
When Should You Seek Help from a Speech Language Therapist? It’s so important not to wait if you notice any sign that your child’s communication development may be delayed. Heartbreakingly, some parents are advised that their child will likely “grow out of it”. However, if families simply wait for their children to catch up to peers, this “wait and see” approach means precious time is lost during a truly critical learning phase. On the other hand, if a child with a delay receives extra support from experts and the important adults in his life, he can experience significant gains. The earlier a child receives the help he needs, the better his language outcome will be. So we strongly recommend seeking help from a Speech-Language Therapist if your child: By one and a half years of age:
Uses any less than 12 words.
Doesn’t frequently attempt to imitate words.
Won’t answer basic questions non-verbally, such as by pointing or nodding.
By two years of age:
Knows and uses fewer than 100 words.
Doesn’t consistently produce two-word combinations, such as “Mummy go” or “ light off”.
Won’t imitate words or actions such as clapping or dancing.
Doesn’t engage in pretend play with toys, such as feeding a doll or driving a toy car.
By two and a half years:
Says less than 300 words.
Doesn’t use verbs (action words) such as “run”, “eat”, “sit”.
Isn’t beginning to use adult grammar, such as the “s” in “two babies” or the “ing” in “cat sleeping”.
If children are experiencing difficulties, early language intervention is critically important for them to develop the communication skills necessary for future success in their academic and personal lives. The reality is, every child carries the potential for brilliance. We encourage parents to avoid comparison with their son’s peers, but to seek out every single language-building opportunity. The risks of leaving late talking boys to become another communication statistic may be scary, but with caring intervention parents can set their futures on-course for academic, social and relational success.