How speech and language delays are different

Although the two are often difficult to tell apart — and frequently referred to together — there are some differences between a speech and language delay.

Speech is the physical act of producing sounds and saying words. A toddler with a speech delay may try but have trouble forming the correct sounds to make words. A speech delay doesn’t involve comprehension or nonverbal communication.

language delay involves understanding and communicating, both verbally and nonverbally. A toddler with a language delay may make the correct sounds and pronounce some words, but they can’t form phrases or sentences that make sense. They may have difficulty understanding others.

Children can have a speech delay or a language delay, but the two conditions sometimes overlap.

If you don’t know which one your child may have, don’t worry. It’s not necessary to make a distinction to have an evaluation and start treatment.

What is a speech delay in a toddler?

Speech and language skills begin with the cooing of an infant. As the month’s pass, seemingly meaningless babbling progresses into the first understandable word.

A speech delay is when a toddler hasn’t met typical speech milestones. Children progress on their own timeline. Being a little late with conversation doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a serious problem.

What’s typical for a 3-year-old?

A typical 3-year-old can:

  • use about 1,000 words
  • call themselves by name, call others by name
  • use nouns, adjectives, and verbs in three- and four-word sentences
  • form plurals
  • ask questions
  • tell a story, repeat a nursery rhyme, sing a song

People who spend the most time with a toddler tend to understand them best. About 50 to 90 percent of 3-year-olds can speak well enough for strangers to understand most of the time.

Signs of a speech delay

If a baby isn’t cooing or making other sounds at 2 months, it could be the earliest sign of a speech delay. By 18 months, most babies can use simple words like “mama” or “dada.” Signs of a speech delay in older toddlers are:

  • Age 2: Don’t use at least 25 words
  • Age 2 1/2: doesn’t use unique two-word phrases or noun-verb combinations
  • Age 3: doesn’t use at least 200 words, doesn’t ask for things by name, hard to understand even if you live with them
  • Any age: unable to say previously learned words


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