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Language Delays, & Why Worrying Is *Not* The Answer

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I’m at my son’s 18-month wellness visit. “How big he (still) is!” says the pediatrician when she enters the room, and we both laugh at Aidan sashaying over to the nose-inspection instrument. Yep, my son is still in the 90th percentile for height and weight, and he checked out just fine with all the survey questions on his 18-month development list. Now for his language development... “How many words does Aidan have to date?” Dr. Putter balls her hand into a fist, ready to count A’s vocabulary out. I struggle to recollect any words I’ve heard Aidan utter, if only once: “mama,” “dada,” uh… “yes,” um, “bus”…, “dog?” Maybe? After this excruciating exercise, the pediatrician only has five fingers raised. “I know, his language is delayed, isn’t it,” I say. She nods her head and tells me if I haven’t noticed a “word explosion” by 21 months, I should contact her for early intervention.

My name is Lilly Stevens and my son has a language delay.

At the risk of generalizing, no one enjoys hearing the words “delay” when discussing their child’s development. This is especially true when the child’s mom (yours truly) is a BLEEPING educational researcher with a focus on linguistics. I don’t have to inquire about the studies on language development, since I took a doctoral seminar on that four years ago. I also didn’t need my pediatrician to qualify this hiccup in his development because I already knew he hadn’t exploded with words (there is a daily conversation with my husband that goes, “What has he said today? How many times? Did it actually sound like X?”) Meanwhile, A’s BFF in the nanny share is very clearly articulating words left and right, and his playmate (a girl) has had about three separate word explosions since turning 17 months old.

Photo courtesy of Lilly Stevens

Do I sound anxious? Am I worried about my son’s development? Oddly, the answer is no!

I have to keep the faith that Aidan will find his way to words like all other humans do.

I paid very close attention to my emotions and state of mind in the 48 hours that followed the revelation of a “language delay.” I have a lot of thoughts.

Aidan’s lexicon of receptive language (i.e., what he understands) has been booming for a while now. I know that receptive language comes well before productive language, as is the case for older bilingual speakers. You most likely have a very good sense of what your child understands before they can speak, or speak well. Trust that instinct.

I am raising Aidan bilingually, and there is typically a word-delay in bilinguals that can lag from 4-6 months. Dare I allow myself to feel good that this delay is an early sign of his bilingual brain forming? He can get to “fox,” “box,” and “socks” later.

I will admit that A’s articulation is pretty atrocious, but have you heard the speech of other toddlers well into their twos? They always need a parent translating for them anyway. Toddlers are NOT articulators par excellence.

Patience and positive reinforcement for any attempts at verbalization are the only behaviors I should be focusing on to help Aidan along his linguistic journey. I’ve seen it work for nearly a decade back when I was a bilingual teacher. I have to keep the faith that Aidan will find his way to words like all other humans do.

Photo courtesy of Lilly Stevens

Now, I’m not one to troll mom blogs in search of answers, largely because I come from a line of work where I know that for every time a study has found X to be true, there’s another study out there to refute that finding.

There’s a deep truth to observing your LO’s natural tendencies and looking at these developmental behaviors through that lens.

Instead, I keep a small cohort of experts around (Aidan’s nanny, his pediatrician, my husband, and my co-mom in the nanny share) who interact with my son regularly and can speak to his tendencies and dispositions. One helpful insight came from my co-mom, Maha, who offered the following theory about Aidan’s delay: Lilly, for everything he’s done, whether it was crawling, pulling up, or walking, he has studied the process methodically before trying it out. And then when he did it: it was like he had been doing the behavior his whole life. Why would his foray into speaking be any different?

Her kind words weren’t simply paying lip-service to a fellow mom in need: I think there’s a deep truth to observing your LO’s natural tendencies and looking at these developmental behaviors through that lens. In fact, it’s the first rule of teaching: get to know your students and make adjustments to your teaching style as necessary. The same is true of parenting and all other developmental milestones: know your kid and then assess whether the delay is normal for him or whether the situation warrants professional intervention.

Post-script: I’m writing this essay a good two weeks after the doctor visit. Since then, Aidan has said: apple, I did that, water, what, and, meditation (no joke, this morning I told him how so very rudely he interrupted my meditation and he repeated the word, all four syllables).

So A-train is well on his way to bursting with words. And while I haven’t heard him say a word in Spanish yet, and a good portion of the time the words he does say are a garble of unintelligible phonemes, I’m proud AF that a) he’s trying, b) I’m remaining patient, and c) there are so many opportunities for language growth around the bend, I’m too busy focusing on enjoying the ride to worry about the speed.