I entitled this “little boy” because sociologically, moms worry more about their boys’ language development than their girls. It is 100% true that girls generally learn language faster than boys. Girls biologically mature faster than boys too, so it is normal for the average three year old girl’s vocabulary to be on par with a five-year old boy. It isn’t gender bias, it’s just part of development.
That doesn’t mean all boys will be late talkers or all girls will be early ones. It just means that on the whole, language takes longer and may need more support for boys rather than for girls. In our family, we have had an array of language experiences and early bloomers blossom the most between 20 and 30-months while late bloomers learn more between 30 and 40-months. If by 4 years old, your little boy has not caught up to other boys his age, that is a red flag. You shouldn’t wait that long if you are concerned (because the earlier the intervention, the better), but if I had peace about the boy’s development, I might wait up until that point to make a clear judgment. All children are different and so much can happen even within a couple months that it sometimes pays to wait. Boys especially grow between 3-5yrs old. This is probably why kindergarten begins after age 5, and real schoolwork begins at 6.
Because of charts and pressure, though, too many moms are worried that their boys aren’t speaking in sentences at 3 years old. They hear a friend’s child talking on the playground and get worried because their little boy only says “hi” and “bye” and “no.” But lots of boys are just beginning their language progression at age 3, especially if they are the oldest or only child. Not having other children paving the way is important because little boys don’t come out already knowing that they are supposed to be imitating their parents. They may not even imitate the TV or one another. Whereas little girls are more likely to model and mimic, little boys can be more in their own worlds, relying on revelation that comes from within. They take their own time to process and learn things, usually sequentially, analytically, and in the order that they feel they need. Girls’ language usually develops much more holistically, haphazardly, and practically.
We think little boys are just like little girls and of course need high verbal skills; we look at them anxiously, waiting for them to come but many little boys are blissfully unaware and seem perfectly content on their own timetable. For whatever reason, the little learner isn’t sensing the verbal need as urgently as the parent =). My oldest boy, who was late in learning language, was (and still is) more preoccupied with what he’s doing or thinking about. At 7 yrs now, I have quizzed him and found out that he remembers all kinds of things he did when he was 3yrs, and how he felt about it at the time, but he didn’t start talking about anything meaningfully until he was past 4yrs old. So his little thinker was very much on at 3, but not expressive or communicating yet.
I have also observed my three little boys playing together for almost five years now, and I see that they basically force themselves into each other’s worlds by competing for legos, playdoh, or whatever. Their interaction style is very parallel (independent) but very intrusive. (My girl’s, however, is very dependent on me, interactive, and careful.) The boys are extremely chatty now, but sometimes talk past one another and don’t listen carefully to what each other is saying. And they do this on almost a constant basis, all day, every day, even past bedtime hours (they share a room). So that’s probably why my third little boy had no trouble picking up language as soon as he was able to play with them as a toddler. But there is no way, as a mommy, that you can model this peering, intervening, competing dynamic with your child. Your mommy thing is much likely more gentle, direct, and occasional. So if you have a three year old boy, who is the oldest but he’s not talking, don’t be surprised.
(Just FYI, all my boys have this interaction style, even though they are all very different and none of them is the stereotypical aggressive, gun-and-cowboy kind of boy. I am not trying to overstereotype here, or derive their learning style from their personality/socialization.)
Here’s another case in point: one of my friends is French and her husband is Greek-American. The mother speaks only French to her little boy, and the father speaks English. This little boy was typically developing in all areas except language, and as he neared the 3-year old mark he didn’t even speak much French although the mother prattled to him all day in it. About a month before he turned 3, he suddenly began speaking in French phrases. But he had only a couple English words like names of animals. Within about two months, he had French sentences and some English phrases. Now as he nears the 4-year mark, he is almost fully fluent in both languages. His vocabulary seems lower than my three and four year old’s, but he is on the whole a better communicator. His cognition skills are slightly higher as well in term of concepts like before/after, yesterday/tomorrow, etc. He even talked with me about his mommy being pregnant, having the new baby, and nursing it. Even though my 4-year old witnessed three siblings arrive in our own family, he never seemed to notice any of it, including how big I was: he certainly never talked about it. So this is a plug for all the bilingual mothers out there.
This is not to overgeneralize about boys and language. It is just to provide some perspective that experts aren’t really providing. My now 4 year old was a late talker, my 3 year old was about average, and my 2 year old was extremely early… and they are all boys! Moreover, my latest talker learned his ABCs and first words the earliest! And my earliest talker spoke his first words and learned his ABCs the latest. So it is really hard to generalize about language things. It really takes some discernment and guidance from your “gut.”
So why isn’t your little boy talking? What does your gut say? Do you have any idea? You have a couple options: either he is fine but taking his time to talk (like my third boy); or he is fine but has language delays (like my first boy); or he is not fine and there is something really wrong. I have several posts on language development where I discuss these options, but to recap an important principle: it is not how much your child is talking by a certain age, but whether or not he is making progress. Like I mentioned, my youngest boy actually started his first words the latest of my four kids (17 months), but spoke in complete sentences the earliest (19 months). A kid in my child’s therapy started his first intelligible words very late (23 months) but is now speaking amazingly in sentences after only four or five months of speech therapy. My oldest boy started his first words earliest (11 months) but ended up having a pretty severe language delay through the toddler and preschool years. So don’t get concerned by age of onset. Look more for progress.
So is he developing in other areas ok? Do you see progress in his verbal development every three months or so? Does he seem stalled in an area? Or are you expecting things too early? Too fast? Is the child a firstborn with little modeling? Is the child the baby of the family with little need to talk? All these types of questions are important pieces of the puzzle. I find, as I said in the beginning, that most moms worry about their boys just a little too early. While some boys are prattling by two years old, some are barely putting two words together. By 36 months, however, most late bloomers are at least on the road to becoming communicative. They should have made some progress between the ages of 2 and 3, and lots of progress between 3 and 3.5, even if they aren’t communicating as well as the typical 3-year old girl. If by 40-42 months your late bloomer is not talking pretty “normally” (i.e. able to dialogue with you about appropriate things, able to understand most of your words), then there is probably a delay or perhaps a language disorder. He/She may not have full sentences, but the phrases and responses should be there.
Also, try to take a long term perspective. When your kids are young, everything they do is under a microscope. It seems like every little “d” or “t” they mess up is a big problem. But most kids even out more after the 4th birthday. A delayed child can take until 5- or 6-years old to catch up. But in the long run, make sure it really matters to you. Assuming that you are only dealing with delays rather than a congenital problem (like Asperger’s), does it make a difference, on the whole, if he takes longer to mature or are you ok with him being a little less mature for awhile? I am not saying to ignore problems. I am just asking if there are factors that are making you feel more impatient or worried than must be objectively warranted. After all, your child is who he is. You have to deal with it one way or another, so there’s no use putting extra pressure as if that would make something change by magic.
Remember that there are thousands of moms worrying just like you. I have had three boys myself, in three years, and watched my friends have about half a dozen baby boys in the last couple years. I have walked down the language disorder and special preschool path. So I know moms worry too much about language. On one hand, language problems are some of the most concerning problems a small child can have because verbal, cognitive, and social/emotional development are intricately tied together. Sometimes language problems are isolated, but sometimes they indicate other more serious problems. So I would publicly recommend erring on the side of too much caution rather than on too little. But on the other hand, do realize that probably every first mom, especially with boys, is worried about their language development and more often than not, finds out that there was absolutely no problem. So don’t panic until there is something to panic about.
(I have several posts on Language Development for real signs, symptoms of language disorders.)