Why do some children start talking later than others?

Katiekazoo asks: I have three cousins. They are 2-4 years old, and can’t communicate with other people. For example, they can’t say “Auntie I’m hungry!” It worries me. Can you help?

Hi Katiekazoo –

There are a lot of possible answers to your question, but the main one that hits me is – are all three of them siblings in the same family?  You see, children who are learning to speak at approximately the same time often develop a language among themselves which only they can understand.

It’s not that they’re trying to exclude others.  It’s just that as they try to learn to speak with the adults, they’re ‘mislearning’ so many words that they’re the only ones who understand each other.

Where this happens most often is when families move to a new place that speaks a different language.  The children will begin learning the new language at the same time they’re still mastering their first one, and they’ll mix them up in ways very confusing to others.

But what if this isn’t the case you’re describing?  What if it’s not that they’re speaking in ways you’re not understanding, but rather that they’re just not speaking at all?

Well, it might be the same thing.  Children learn to speak out of frustration, when they want to communicate with their family and friends and can’t do so without mastering language.  If you have three kids of approximately the same age, who hang around together a lot, they’re not feeling as much frustration, so they’re very likely spending their effort on other things than language (and as a former puppy, let me tell you that there’s LOTS of trouble one’s curiosity can get them into without any ability to speak at all!).

If you’ve never seen it, a hilarious and amazing example of this communication is the YouTube video “Talking Twin Babies.”  These kids have a full conversation, fully understanding each other, only saying “Da Da Da Da.”  Even though I’m limited to barking, growling, and whining, even I am impressed by this!

So are there other possibilities for this?  Sure.  It’s possible that one or more of the children has an actual developmental disability, whether retardation, autism, or something else.  And if the four-year-old doesn’t start talking soon, I would certainly recommend getting them tested.

But most likely, this is just a “pack mentality” issue, of little children enjoying staying little for a bit longer than most other kids do – and nothing to worry about at all.


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