Language development myths

When it comes to language development, there is a lot of information around! There are also some common assumptions around children’s language development that don’t always ring true.

This article addresses some common language development myths and sets the record straight!

‘Children learn language naturally’

The truth: Learning language is partly innate and partly learned.

We are all ‘designed’ to learn language, however, without good models, interaction with other people and the environment, we will not learn.

‘You should never use ‘baby talk’ with babies’

The truth: ‘Baby Talk’ known as ‘motherese’/’parentese’ is characterised by higher than normal and more varied pitch, slower rate of speaking, lots of repetition, emphasis on important words and exaggerated positive facial expressions.

Babies prefer this speech and it helps them to tune into speech, especially amongst background noise.

‘All children develop at different times’

The truth: Yes, to a degree.

Mild and temporary speech and language delays can occur, and some children do learn new words faster than others. However, if a child has less than 200 words by 18 to 24 months they are at risk. It is important not to assume that delays are the result of normal developmental differences. Early intervention is the most effective tool to support successful language development.

young girl looks up at therapist

‘He/she isn’t talking properly, they are just lazy’

The truth: Young children instinctively practice speech and language as these skills emerge.

They will not hold back from laziness. Difficulties with speech and language  may be due to intimidation, stress, fear or other problems.

‘Second- and third-born children are late to talk because their older siblings do the talking for them’

The truth: Several studies have shown that the language development and skills of first-born and later-born children are similar. In fact, some studies have shown superior skills in later-born children in the areas of pronoun use (e.g. “I’, ‘me’, ‘he/she’) and conversation skills.

One study showed that first-born children reach the 50-word milestone earlier, but that once children had reached the 50-word milestone, there were no differences between first and later-born children. So, while older siblings often interrupt and talk for their younger siblings, this does not seem to have a negative impact on their younger sibling’s speech and language development.

‘Speaking ‘telegraphically’ helps young children learn to talk’ (e.g. Where coat?)

The truth: When children aren’t exposed to correct grammar, it makes it hard for them to tune into structures, for example, babies learn that words ending in –ing are ‘action words’ and that words ending in ‘ed’ have happened in the past.

‘Using “educational” products such as DVD’s or flash cards promotes language’

The truth: Conversations, human interaction and play are the most effective ways to develop language and communication. You are your child’s best toy!

‘Using a dummy causes language problems’

The truth: We still don’t have enough information on this.

What we do know is prolonged use is linked to dental problems and ear infections, both of which can have a negative impact on speech. Opportunities for babble, imitating sounds and engaging in conversation is reduced having a dummy in.

‘Boys talk later than girls’

The truth: It is true that boys produce their first words and sentences later than girls. However, these differences are only in terms of a matter of a few months.

There is a normal range within which children acquire certain language milestones. Girls tend to be on the earlier end, and boys on the later end, of this age range. Boys are not actually delayed in their language development, just a little behind girls. So, if a young boy is really lagging behind in his speech and language development, we should not assume that it’s because he’s a boy and that it’s perfectly normal. He may require speech and language intervention.

‘More boys have language delays than girls’

The truth: The incidence of language delays is higher in boys. The incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder is also four times as common in boys than girls.

‘Learning two languages at the same time (bilingualism) causes language delays in young children’

The truth: Children learning two languages at the same time will go through the same developmental patterns in both of their languages and at roughly the same time as children learning one language.

Sometimes young children learning two languages mix words or grammar from their two languages, known as “code mixing” or “code switching”. This is very normal and does not indicate that the child is having difficulty with language learning. There may be benefits from bilingual language learning, as children who are fluent in two languages have strengths in “metalinguistic skills” (the ability to think about language), as well as in cognitive skills, such as attention.

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