“My toddler understands everything, but they haven’t started talking yet.”
As a speech therapist, this is one of the most common observations I hear from parents when they come in for a speech and language evaluation.
There are two common reasons why toddlers might understand everything but not be talking yet. I will explain these common reasons after I talk about how children develop strong understanding skills separate from their talking skills.
How strong understanding skills develop, while talking skills fall behind
Let’s first break your observation up into its two parts.
Your child seems to understand everything.
They haven't started talking yet.
I know you're reading this because you are concerned about the talking part, but before we get there, it’s important to talk about the fact that your child seems to understand everything.
When it comes to speech therapy, language is divided into two parts:
Receptive language (Understanding skills)
Expressive language (Talking skills)
So when parents say their child seems to understand everything, they have watched their child follow a lot of different directions, understand the names of many different things, and answer some questions.
If we were to put your observation into speech therapy terms, we would say that your child's receptive language, or understanding skill, seem to be on track.
But you also notice that your child isn't talking, you've noticed that their expressive language, or talking skills, don't seem to match what they can understand.
Why toddlers understand everything, but haven’t started talking
Now, let's talk about some of the possible reasons why your child might understand everything, but not be talking yet. While there are many different possible reasons, I am going to explain the 2 most common reasons that toddlers have great understanding skills, but are having a hard time learning to talk.
The first reason is that a child might be experiencing a speech delay or an expressive language delay.
Speech therapists use the term speech delay and language delay as a broad term to describe a communication development pattern in which children are developing skills in the order we would expect, but at a pace that's slower than other children their age.
If your child has a speech delay, it could be that their ability to pronounce different sounds and words is developing slower than their peers. Many toddlers receive some speech therapy support to help boost their practice with pronunciation.
If your child has an expressive language delay, it could be that they have had a lot of practice learning the meaning of words but a lot less experience trying to say words. Just as with speech delay, toddlers with expressive language delays often benefit from the support of a speech therapist to encourage them to practice talking more in order to develop their talking skills.
The second reason is that a child might be having a hard time coordinating the movement of their mouth to make the sounds for speech.
In this case a child might be developing pronunciation skills out of order or not at all.
It can be very challenging for some children to learn the coordinated, rapid, and precise movement of the lips, the tongue, and all the parts of your mouth that you use for talking. Children who have difficulty making the specific sounds for talking definitely benefit from visiting a speech therapist. Unfortunately many children in this category won’t make any (or much) progress until a speech therapist can identify and teach the toddler and their family specific strategies for making the different sounds the child is struggling with.
If you're curious which specific sounds speech therapists listen for at different ages and in which order sounds develop, I've linked my toddler pronunciation guide for teaching speech skills at home here:
To quickly recap, if you've noticed that your child seems to understand everything, but they haven't started talking yet, this could be a sign that their understanding skills are on track, but their expressive language or talking skills are falling behind. The two most common reasons why are:
A child is developing talking or pronunciation skills at a slower pace than their peers
A child is having trouble learning the coordination for making sounds for speech
So when is it time to take action if your toddler hasn't started talking yet? And how do you find the right help?
As speech therapists, we listen for toddlers to say their first word by the time they're about 14 months old. (I know there's a lot of controversy with the new CDC guidelines, but I am sticking to my experience for this rule of thumb. I would always rather support a toddler in staying on track than waiting until they are clearly behind to help them. I’ve included a graph below to demonstrate how important starting early is!)
So as a rough rule of thumb, I would say if your toddler is 14 months old, and they haven't said their first word, that it's a great next step to talk to your pediatrician about the possibility of an in-person or virtual speech and language evaluation.
A visit with a speech therapist is truly invaluable. They'll be able to play with your child, and watch the different ways that they communicate, in order to identify what might be making it hard for your child to learn to talk, and what specific strategies and activities are going to be best suited for your child to support them along their communication pathway.
And those of you who are thinking, "Yes, a speech and language evaluation sounds like the next step for my child," I've linked an article that explains what to expect at a speech and language evaluation for your toddler here: What to expect in a toddler speech and language evaluation.
What can you do today to start supporting your child's expressive language or talking skills?
As I mentioned before, the first thing that you can do is talk to your child's pediatrician. Your child's pediatrician knows your child specifically, and will be able to support you in finding the next best step for you and your child. That might mean a speech and language evaluation.
Once you’ve created a plan for a potential speech and language evaluation, you can start practicing at home. And I’ve got great news, it does NOT have to take a ton of time or effort to practice speech activities at home.
The second thing you can do is sign up for my Free Foundations Of Speech Course. The program includes four lessons that teach you specific skills that you can use at home in order to encourage your child to grow their vocabulary.
** Now available on YouTube ! I highly recommend checking out the worksheet, or the activity, in lesson number one (first video), which helps you choose how many vocabulary words to practice at a time, which words to choose, and how to incorporate the practice into your everyday life. After you’ve finished lesson 1, each lesson has a specific worksheet you can download to guide you through your at home practice!
The third thing you can do is look online for what free programs and resources might be available in your state or in your county. I've included a link to the CDC website here [CDC Website for toddler support and speech therapy], that will direct you to your state's specific website, and help you find early intervention, or toddler learning programs in your community.
Here are some other common questions parents often ask when their toddler understands words, but hasn’t started talking:
When 2 year olds are understanding everything, but haven’t started talking it’s often a sign of a developmental speech disorder, which causes children to have a harder time learning to actually pronounce sounds and words.
If your 2 year old isn’t talking yet, I recommend talking to your pediatrician about finding a speech therapist near you who can support your toddler’s speech development.
Some late talkers will catch up by 3 years old; however, many other late talkers may not catch up by age 5 without the support of a speech therapist.
Learn more about speech therapy for toddlers here.
Speech therapist support toddlers to speech delay which can “go away” when toddlers catch up in their communication milestones.
To learn about how you can support speech delay at home - check out these simple yet effective strategies.
© 2020-2023. Stephanie Keffer, MS CCC-SLP. All Rights Reserved.
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Why does my kid understand everything but not talk? ›
The two most common reasons why are: A child is developing talking or pronunciation skills at a slower pace than their peers. A child is having trouble learning the coordination for making sounds for speech.Why is my child not talking at 3 but understands everything? ›
A 3-year-old who can comprehend and nonverbally communicate but can't say many words may have a speech delay. One who can say a few words but can't put them into understandable phrases may have a language delay. Some speech and language disorders involve brain function and may be indicative of a learning disability.At what age should you be concerned if your toddler is not talking? ›
Also call the doctor if your child's speech is harder to understand than expected for their age: Parents and regular caregivers should understand about 50% of a child's speech at 2 years and 75% of it at 3 years. By 4 years old, a child should be mostly understood, even by people who don't know the child.At what age do late talkers talk? ›
Boys tend to develop language skills a little later than girls, but in general, kids may be labeled "late-talking children" if they speak less than 10 words by the age of 18 to 20 months, or fewer than 50 words by 21 to 30 months of age.
There are several reasons why a 2-year-old is babbling but not talking. Sometimes, it may be because they are shy or introverted. It can also be related to hearing loss or other developmental delays. In most cases, however, the cause is unknown.Can a toddler have speech delay and not be autistic? ›
Not necessarily. While speech delays, language delays, and learning differences are often a hallmark of ASD, a speech delay by itself does not mean a child has autism. In fact, there are key differences between communication delays caused by autism and other types of speech-language disorders.What does high functioning autism look like in a 2 year old? ›
The child may seem to have one-sided social interaction and limited ability to form friendships. He or she may often talk incessantly about one subject, without acknowledging the listener. Toddler's with HFA usually have difficulty in social situations (e.g., imaginative play with other kids).Is 3 too old to not be talking? ›
If your child is over two years old, you should have your pediatrician evaluate them and refer them for speech therapy and a hearing exam if they can only imitate speech or actions but don't produce words or phrases by themselves, they say only certain words and only those words repeatedly, they cannot follow simple ...What causes a 3 year old not to talk? ›
Causes Of Speech And Language Delays
Your child has problems with their tongue or roof of their mouth that is preventing them from forming words. Your child has a hearing problem. Your child has a lack of stimulation, meaning that they are not being talked to enough. Your child has a developmental disorder like autism.
Developmental Delay of Expressive or Receptive Language
Trouble with language processing is usually caused by one of four problems: delayed expressive or receptive language, autism spectrum disorder, hearing loss, and global developmental delay.
What are signs of autism in a 2 year old? ›
- not responding to their name.
- avoiding eye contact.
- not smiling when you smile at them.
- getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound.
- repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, flicking their fingers or rocking their body.
- not talking as much as other children.
Most children who don't talk have no choice in the matter. If they could talk, but actually have made the choice not to talk, they would be diagnosed with selective mutism, and this diagnosis is very, very rare. Selective mutism requires that a child use language that is typical for his age in at least one setting.Can a late talker be smart? ›
To be sure, most late talking children do not have high intelligence. However, there are certainly many cases on record indicating that there may be trade-offs between early, precocious development of reasoning and analytical abilities and the development of verbal skills.Do late talkers need speech therapy? ›
Although some kids with late language emergence later prove to be “late bloomers” (who ultimately catch up to their peers without intervention), the differentiation is really only made after the fact. That's why we recommend all “late talkers” get early intervention speech therapy.What is late talking a symptom of? ›
He explains that late talking is only one of a constellation of autism symptoms. Although all autistic children are late talkers, not all late-talking children are autistic.Is it abnormal for a 2 year old not to talk? ›
A 2 year old not talking is a reason to seek advice from a speech pathologist or a health professional. There is a lot of variation and reason for delayed toddler talking, however, if they are saying NO words at 2, it is a definite red flag for them being at risk of development and learning delays.How do I get my stubborn toddler to talk? ›
Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. Play rhymes, stories and songs in the car. Copy your child's attempts at words to encourage two-way conversation. Also build on your child's words – for example, when your toddler says 'train', you can say, 'Yes, it's a big red train'.Why do some autistic toddlers not talk? ›
Some children may have problems with auditory processing, the system by which their brains interpret the words that they hear. Others may struggle with the motor skills needed to form words. For example, speech apraxia affects people's ability to plan and coordinate the mouth and tongue movements used to talk.Is my child autistic or just a late talker? ›
Most late talkers present similarly and are still able to communicate through gestures and body movements. They have better receptive language and play skills as compared to those with ASD. To be considered a true late talker, the only thing your child is going through is a delay in expressive language skills.Do autistic toddlers play with parents? ›
Autistic children enjoy play and learn through play, just as typically developing children do. Through playing with others, your child can learn and practise new social skills and abilities. These skills are important for your child's overall development.
What is the difference between autism and late talker? ›
However, there are some notable differences between the two problems. Speech delay is a problem where a child has difficulty developing speech and language skills. In contrast, autism spectrum disorder is a neurological disorder that affects social skills, learning, communication, and behavior.What are the signs of Aspergers in a toddler? ›
What are the Symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome? Children with Asperger's Syndrome exhibit poor social interactions, obsessions, odd speech patterns, limited facial expressions and other peculiar mannerisms. They might engage in obsessive routines and show an unusual sensitivity to sensory stimuli.How can you tell if your child is mildly autistic? ›
Avoiding eye contact and being difficult to engage in conversation. Missing verbal or physical cues, such as not looking at where someone is pointing. Having difficulty understanding others' feelings or talking about feelings in general. Reluctance to socialize or a preference for isolation.Can a toddler show signs of autism and not be autistic? ›
Children can be misdiagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and not actually be autistic. It is concerning enough for a parent to be told their child is on the Autism Spectrum, but for a child to be misdiagnosed as having autism can cause unnecessary stress and worry for the family.Can too much TV cause speech delay? ›
Studies report a link between TV and language development in young children. The more time kids spend watching television, the more slowly they learn to talk.Will my 3.5 year old ever talk? ›
By age 3, a toddler's vocabulary usually is more than 200 words. Kids can string together 2- or 3-word sentences. They can talk with you in a conversation that has at least 2 back-and-forth exchanges. Other people can understand your toddler most of the time.What is the most common cause of speech delay? ›
MENTAL RETARDATION. Mental retardation is the most common cause of speech delay, accounting for more than 50 percent of cases.Do speech delayed toddlers catch up? ›
Some children with expressive language delay "catch up" during the preschool years ("late bloomers"), whereas others have persistent delay (see 'Natural history' below). Early evaluation can help to correctly identify late-talking children who will benefit from intervention and/or additional evaluation.Can speech delay be fixed? ›
Simple speech delays are sometimes temporary. They may resolve on their own or with a little extra help from family. It's important to encourage your child to "talk" to you with gestures or sounds and for you to spend lots of time playing with, reading to, and talking with your infant or toddler.How can I help my 3 year old non verbal? ›
- Keep Talking. Just because your child might not be verbalizing doesn't mean you should stop talking to them. ...
- Pay Attention. ...
- Use Simple Language. ...
- Pause. ...
- Sit at Eye Level. ...
- Get Smart. ...
- Use Cues. ...
- Don't Underestimate Play.
What causes a child not to start talking? ›
There are several things that can cause speech delays, such as hearing loss, physical problems in the roof of the mouth, learning disabilities, or certain diagnosable conditions like autism spectrum disorder or cerebral palsy.Can a non verbal child understand? ›
However, the term nonverbal isn't completely accurate, since it means “without words.” Even if an autistic person is nonspeaking, they may still use words in other ways (such as in writing). They may also understand the words that are spoken to them or that they overhear.Why do some children not learn to speak? ›
Some children have trouble processing sensory information such as loud noise and jostling from crowds – a condition known as sensory integration dysfunction. This can make them "shut down" and be unable to speak when overwhelmed in a busy environment.What is Hyperlexic? ›
Hyperlexia is advanced and unexpected reading skills and abilities in children way beyond their chronological age. It is a fairly recently named condition (1967) although earlier descriptions of precocious reading do exist.What are the red flags for speech delay? ›
Red flags for a speech or language delay include: No babbling by 9 months. No first words by 15 months. No consistent words by 18 months.Is it normal for a 3 year old not to speak? ›
So if your toddler is 2 or 3 years old and isn't yet talking, it's vital to go ahead and speak with their pediatrician, or with a speech-language pathologist. They will likely recommend a speech evaluation in order to assess your child's current abilities. Early intervention is so important in these situations.Can a child be nonverbal but not autistic? ›
When people hear that a child is nonverbal, they often think of autism (ASD). While some individuals with ASD are nonverbal, there are a variety of other conditions that cause a child to be nonverbal, pre-verbal, or have emerging or delayed verbal skills, either short-term or long-term.How do I teach my nonverbal toddler to talk? ›
Focus on nonverbal communication.
Use both your body and your voice when communicating – for example, by extending your hand to point when you say “look” and nodding your head when you say “yes.” Use gestures that are easy for your child to imitate. Examples include clapping, opening hands, reaching out arms, etc.
Nonverbal autism tends to occur in what's known as severe autism, or level 3 autism. In some cases, a child will eventually learn to speak. For those who don't, new approaches and technologies are making it possible for kids with autism to communicate in other ways.How do you teach a stubborn toddler to talk? ›
Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. Play rhymes, stories and songs in the car. Copy your child's attempts at words to encourage two-way conversation. Also build on your child's words – for example, when your toddler says 'train', you can say, 'Yes, it's a big red train'.
What causes language delay in toddlers? ›
A delay in speech development may be a symptom of many disorders, including mental retardation, hearing loss, an expressive language disorder, psychosocial deprivation, autism, elective mutism, receptive aphasia and cerebral palsy. Speech delay may be secondary to maturation delay or bilingualism.What is the most common reason for speech delay? ›
The most common causes of speech delay include: Hearing loss. Slow development. Intellectual disability.What is Einstein syndrome? ›
Einstein syndrome is a condition where a child experiences late onset of language, or a late language emergence, but demonstrates giftedness in other areas of analytical thinking. A child with Einstein syndrome eventually speaks with no issues, but remains ahead of the curve in other areas.What is pre verbal autism? ›
We say that they do not yet have communicative intent. A pre-verbal child may communicate intentionally, but does not yet use words (or symbols) to communicate. We are usually referring to children who have learned that the key to communication is getting a message across to someone else.What is verbal dyslexia? ›
People with dyslexia may say a wrong word that sounds similar to the right one (like extinct instead of distinct). Or they may talk around it using vague words like thing or stuff. This kind of mental hiccup can happen when they're writing too.