Toddler boy and girl sitting

Written by Dr Penny Levickis | Research Coordinator, Centre of Research Excellence in Child Language, Neuroscience of Speech, Clinical Sciences, Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

My son, Noah, is nearly two, and he can only say ‘dada’ and ‘bye-bye’. He can follow simple instructions and he tells us what he wants by pointing or showing us. But the other kids in my mother’s group talk a lot, and he seems really far behind. Should I be worried about him?

For parents, a child’s first words can be one of the most memorable milestones. Therefore, it is understandable that it can be of great concern to parents when a child does not start talking and using words at the same rate as their peers.

The first five years of a child’s life have a significant impact on their development and ultimately their capabilities and opportunities in later life. Children that are late to start talking are often thought to be at risk of having ongoing and later language difficulties. We know that children who have a language difficulty when they are five years old are more likely to have trouble with reading, spelling and mathematics, and may struggle to complete school and find work. This means that it is important to be able to understand, treat and prevent language difficulties. Children who are slow to start talking (often called ‘late talkers’) are of particular interest, as some health professionals and researchers believe that how much a child can say predicts later language skills.

What is the definition of a ‘late talker’?

There are many definitions of late talking. The typically considered hallmark of a late talker is a limited spoken vocabulary at around two years of age. A child is often defined as late talking if at 2 years of age, they have fewer than 50 words in their spoken vocabulary and/or aren’t combining words.

How many children are late talkers, and how many late talkers go on to have language difficulties?

The Early Language in Victoria Study, which has monitored the language development of 1,910 Victorian children during the critical developmental window of 0-5 years, found:

At age 2 years

  • Toddlers spoke on average 261 words
  • There was a large spread in the number of words spoken (some children spoke 600 words and others none at all)
  • Girls tended to use more words than boys (an average of 288 words compared to 235)
  • Almost 1 in 5 children used no word combinations
  • Around 1 in 5 children were classified as ‘late talkers’

At age 4 years

  • Almost 70 per cent of children who were late talkers at age two now had a typical level of language
  • Almost 8 per cent of children who were typical talkers at two years of age now had a low level of language

Language pathways between two and four years

Language pathways between two and four years









 ‘Girl’ graphic courtesy of Peacock Dream, The Noun Project

Late talking is not a reliable predictor of later language difficulties

The results of the Early Language in Victoria study show that many late talkers catch up by age 4. The high rate of instability during this time means that it is not useful to use late talking as the basis for treatment or intervention programs. Late talking may be indicative of broader developmental difficulties so needs to be considered alongside other aspects of a child’s development. These findings suggest that unless parents have other concerns about their child’s development (for example, difficulties understanding what others say, being slow to walk), then late talking by itself doesn’t generally indicate serious developmental difficulties. Thus, for children like Noah, where additional difficulties are not present the outlook for language development is likely to be very positive.

About us:

The Centre of Research Excellence in Child Language is a collaboration of child language experts from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Griffith University, Newcastle University (UK), Deakin University and La Trobe University. The Centre is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Reference: Reilly, S., McKean, C., Levickis, P. (2014) Late talking: can it predict later language difficulties? Centre for Research Excellence in Child Language, Research Snapshot 2.

ELVS Published article details

Reilly, S., Wake, M., Bavin, E.L., Prior, M., Williams, J., Bretherton, L., Eadie, P., Barrett, Y., Ukoumunne, O.C. (2007) Predicting language at 2 years of age: A Prospective Community Study. Pediatrics, 120(6): e1441-e1449

Reilly S., Bavin E., Bretherton L., Conway L., Eadie P., Cini E., Prior M., Ukoumunne O., Wake M. (2009) The Early Language in Victoria Study (ELVS): a prospective, longitudinal study of communication skills and expressive vocabulary development at 8, 12 and 24 months. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 11(5): 344-357.

Reilly, S., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O., Bavin, E., Prior, M., Cini, E., Conway, L., Eadie, P., Bretherton, L.

(2010) Predicting language outcomes at 4 years of age: Findings from the Early Language in Victoria Study. Pediatrics, 126(6): E1530-E1537.

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