Power in knowledge: child language risk factors

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As you can probably tell from our blog, we’re firm believers in sharing as much information as possible with parents and others about developmental language delays and other communication problems – including the limitations of the current evidence base.

We know some language disorders are caused by medical problems, e.g. brain injuries, genetic disorders, hearing impairments and other disabilities.  But many developmental language problems – such as specific language impairment or SLI – have no known cause.

In the absence of a cause, researchers have spent decades looking for correlations between language delays and other factors.  From this research, speech pathologists can identify a number factors or “red flags” that increase – or appear to increase – the risk that a given child may have a language delay. These include:

  • Male gender: Boys are between 2-3 times more likely than girls to have language delays (Campbell, Dollaghan, & Rockette et al., 2003; Kwiatowski & Shriberg, 1993);
  • Family history: A family history of speech-language disorder is a major risk factor for continued language delay (Campbell et al., 2003; and Weismer, Murray-Branch & Miller, 1994);
  • Little babbling: Not babbling much as a baby, is correlated with a greater risk for continued language delays (Olswang, Rodriguez & Timler, 1998; and Eilers, Neal & Oller, 1996);
  • Late talking:  Having fewer than 50 words for a child aged 2 years is a risk indicator for later language impairments (Stokes, 2010).  About half of late talkers without receptive language (comprehension) problems “outgrow” their delay; whereas others do not (Stoel-Gammon, 1991; and Williams & Elbert, 2003);
  • Very low birth weight;
  • Birth order;
  • Genetic and/or neurological disorders;
  • Sensory disorders;
  • Atypical developmental disorders;
  • Severe toxic exposure;
  • Chronic medical illness;
  • Severe infectious disease;
  • Chronic glue ear (otitis media); and/or
  • abuse, major trauma or neglect.

It’s important to remember:

1.  these are just risk factors – issues that that have been shown to co-occur with language delays for some children.  We know males are more at risk.  We’re almost certain there’s a strong genetic component.  Common sense would tell you that traumatised children are more likely to have language delays than children who haven’t experienced trauma, though many kids who’ve suffered abuse or neglect have no language problems whatsoever.  So, in short, we have a very long way to go before we can point specific factors that cause language delays in specific children.

2. for some risk factors, we don’t yet understand why or how they are risks.  For example, we don’t know if older or younger children are more at risk of language delay (there’s research supporting both positions).  There’s also conflicting evidence about the long-term effects of middle ear infections/otitis media on language development.  We’ll look at some of these risk factors in more detail in later posts.

The good news is that loads of great research is being conducted as we write, including a fantastic longitudinal study in Victoria that’s already produced some invaluable research on typical language development and delays.

So watch this space!

Related article:

Additional source: Kanapathy & Weimer, 2012.

Image: http://tinyurl.com/lx9vuv8


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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