Some 3-year-olds love to talk, while other children of the same age sit around silently, saying a word or two every now and then – or just pointing to what it is they want. At what point should parents worry that their child isn't speaking enough?
A late talker is defined as a child who speaks less than 50 words at the age of 2 and doesn't form two-word sentences ("Mommy ball!"). A hearing disorder or other disability needs to be ruled out first, says speech therapist Milena Hagemann. 10% of preschool children are estimated to be affected by speech delay.
When the vocabulary explosion doesn't happen
But how many words do small children speak on average? For most of them, things really get going from 18 months onwards: This is when the vocabulary explosion occurs in children, where they are constantly learning new words and repeat everything that mommy or daddy say.
At this age, their vocabulary contains around 50 to 150 words. By the age of three, almost all children can formulate multi-word sentences and express what it is they want.
If parents feel their child is unable to speak enough, they can objectify this assessment. There are several free vocabulary lists developed by universities, where parents can check off which words their child already speaks.
"A critical level would be, for example, if a child aged 23 to 24 months speaks fewer than 19 words on a list of 57," says Hagemann. The list also takes multilingualism into account, so don't worry if your child speaks fewer words in one of their languages. Ultimately it's about overall vocabulary. (Here's more on raising bilingual children.)
Vocabulary lists can be an initial indication that a child has a speech delay. As a next step, parents should contact their pediatrician. They can issue a prescription for speech therapy.
Don't wait too long for speech therapy
Parents shouldn't simply shake off an uneasy feeling, advises Mariana Gnadt, who co-runs a speech therapy practice. "Some pediatricians still have somewhat outdated views and say, for example, that speech therapy before the fourth birthday makes no sense."
Practical experience shows that the earlier late speakers start therapy, the faster they catch up.
"It's better to treat earlier and for shorter than later and therefore for a lot longer," says Gnadt from experience.
You shouldn't think of the time spent with the speech therapist as lessons. "We don't want to 'teach' the child anything," says Gnadt.
Homework has also proved ineffective. Instead, she tries to provide the children with new ideas in as normal a situation as possible: "We fill the tank with information – until it overflows at some point," she says. When it "overflows," the children start talking.
Repetition alone is of little use
Parents can support their child at home – for example by reading a picture book together. "It's all about creating a dialogue," says Hagemann.
What is the child pointing at, for example? The parents can pick up on this and ask questions about it: "Oh, there's a child falling over. Let's look for the child that's jumping."
On the other hand, it's counterproductive to prompt the child or encourage them to simply repeat words ("Why don't you say 'flower'?"). A little restraint is better. For example, you shouldn't react immediately when a child points to something – instead, give them time to find the word for it.
It's not clear why some children learn to speak later than others. Neither the family's educational level nor the frequency of reading out loud seems to be factors. So parents need not blame themselves if their child is a late bloomer.