Why didn't I say anything until I was three?
December 6, 2009 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I didn't say my first word until I was three years old. Does anyone know a probable cause?

I said my first word around my third birthday. Nobody in my immediate family thinks very much of it, but I've always wondered what the explanation might have been.

Here's the details that I could cobble together:

*I'm the youngest child, not a twin. While I was pretty close to my oldest brother (four years older), I didn't seem to have a special language with him.

*I could articulate sounds and gestured a lot to communicate, and I seemed to understand English, I just didn't speak it.

*My hearing is fine.

*My mother insists that I was fine in general

*As far as I know, I've never had a brain tumor. While I'm kind of socially awkward, I'm nowhere near being autistic.

*During grade school I was enrolled in speech therapy at my teacher's request-from what I can tell later, there were some issues with vowel pronunciation and pronoun confusion, but mostly something my mother has later referred to as 'word search' . . . while I could define words, I would have issues thinking of them to use in a sentence. There were a lot of exercises where I had to use as many adjectives as I could to describe a ball. This stopped in junior high-mostly because my mother refused to sign the form (I remember that the therapist recommended I continue)

*I'm fine with communicating now. Some people seem to detect an accent or complain about mumbling, but I don't have issues with random strangers understanding me (I spend a lot of time on the phone at work, I would have noticed by now if that were the case).

Anybody have any idea what was going on?

Anonymous because, while it's not a secret, it's kind of a weird thing for people I don't know to associate me with.
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
No big deal, really. My grandfather didn't say a word til that same age.

The story goes that my great-grandmother was a fussy lady toward him— constantly adjusting his blankies and and flattening his hair. On one such occasion, my grandfather evidently swatted her away and said in a loud voice:


He grew up to be an amazing engineer, working for Von Braun in Huntsville, then moving on to inventing rocket parts for the nascent NASA. Not too shabby for a "dumb" kid.

You're fine!
posted by functionequalsform at 7:47 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There can be lots of causes, most of them fairly benign in the long run, and it's not as uncommon as you might think.
posted by amyms at 7:47 PM on December 6, 2009

I don't know if it's apocryphal, but it's often said that Einstein never spoke til age 3 and was thought to be mentally impaired.
posted by fullofragerie at 7:52 PM on December 6, 2009

I've heard that younger siblings don't start talking a soon as their older siblings because they can't get a word in edgewise, with the older sibling talking all the time and talking for them. This has been my observation from my babysitting days.
posted by amethysts at 7:52 PM on December 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

Are you male? It's not uncommon for boy toddlers to exhibit speech delays, relative to girls.
posted by availablelight at 7:57 PM on December 6, 2009

Does everyone else in your family talk a lot? Or very little? Since you are fine now I doubt that there is any significant reason for this. I have a friend who thought her daughter was autistic because she wasn't speaking when (mom) thought she should be. My theory was that the mother just speaks so much that the kid didn't need to. Maybe that has something to do with it. Are you a talker now? Or more the silent type?
posted by mokeydraws at 8:00 PM on December 6, 2009

Are you sure your hearing is fine? Have you been comprehensively tested, including low and high pitched tones? (I'm curious about people detecting an accent in your speech even now.)

Even if you hear fine now, are you sure about when you were a kid? My hearing is fine now, but I couldn't hear shit as a kid, due to ear infections. I pretty much had one ear infection that lasted from age 9 months to 4 years old. After that I'd get them every time I got a cold. I know from experience that it is easy to mask that you can't clearly hear a lot of what's being said - my parents had no CLUE that my hearing was so bad as a kid.
posted by peep at 8:02 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's pretty common for younger sibs to speak late. Older sib does the talking for you.
posted by k8t at 8:03 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The story about the boy who speaks late, and then says "up to now, everything was in order" is actually about Einstein:

Language Log post attributing this story to Otto Neugebauer, along with a few related examples.
Google books citation for The Mathematical Experience by Philip J Davis and Reuben Hirsh.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:09 PM on December 6, 2009

I don't know if it's apocryphal, but it's often said that Einstein never spoke til age 3 and was thought to be mentally impaired.

Um, Einstein was mentally impaired. His cousins/wives had to dress him and make sure he bathed. His lectures were rambling and confusing to any listeners. After death, when they removed his brain and found that his sylvian fissure was small.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:10 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The story I referred to:
Otto Neugebauer told the writer the following legend about Einstein. It seems that when Einstein was a young boy he was a lake talker and naturally his parents were worried. Finally, one dat at supper, he broke into speech with the words "Die Suppe ist zu heiss." (The soup is too hot.) His parents were greatly relieved, but asked him why he hadn't spoken up to that time. The answer came back: "Bisher war Alles in Ordnung." (Until now everything was in order.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:12 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

My mother tells me I didn't talk until I could speak in full sentences.

Late-talking is possibly correlated with high intelligence.
posted by orthogonality at 8:27 PM on December 6, 2009

There is a similar story about my uncle, who also grew up to be a great student and successful in a technical career that has required him to be a good communicator, though I would probably describe him as somewhat socially awkward, certainly when he's outside of the subjects in his comfort zone.

Story is that after four years of relative silence he walked into a room, set something down in front of my grandparents and said "There you go." and from then on, spoke in complete, perfect sentences.

My aunt, his older sister, was apparently an early talker and he may not have felt he really had anything to say until the younger children in the family got in the way of having his needs met, but it's all speculation. Of course nowadays you'd never let a kid go that long without talking and not have him scanned up one side and analyzed by experts down the other, which is probably why these stories stick around in family lore.
posted by padraigin at 8:44 PM on December 6, 2009

i didn't speak until 3 and had speech therapy in grade school as well. when i began speaking it was in full sentences. i know i understood what people were saying to me long before i was speaking to them. i've always assumed that my reluctance to speak was the result of a combination of environment and personal temperament. my brain seems ok, as brains go.
posted by memi at 8:45 PM on December 6, 2009

My husband didn't speak until age 4. He blames this on an injury at birth (his mother was induced because her doctor was going on vacation and he was delivered via forceps). We have no proof of this, of course, and his mother denies that the minor birth injuries he had made any difference. In any case, he's fine now, and our daughter suffers from no speech delays. Try not to worry about it.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:45 PM on December 6, 2009

I find orthogonality's comment quite thrilling, since I didn't talk until I could speak full sentences either, also around the age of three. And yet when I went to school, a year later, I already knew how to read, without ever having been taught. In fact, if my mother is to be believed, I could read by the time I started talking--because according to her, the first words (rather than ga-ga noises) that I uttered were the whole sentence, "It says sold, stupid." We were in the car, and my grandma had just pointed out a 'For sale' sign in front of a house near our home. Nice kid, I must have been.

Anyway--in my case there's the classic 'garrulous older sibling'. He grew up to be a stand-up comic. I grew up to be a historian. Read into it what you etc.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:52 PM on December 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

According to my mom I was like this, though when I did start speaking, it was in full sentences. I could clearly understand English and what was going on, but just didn't talk. I had no hearing problems and no speech therapy, though I probably could have used some, as some of the finer points of pronunciation have always been harder for me. I've always been somewhat socially awkward, but far from a misfit and can communicate well, though I do it better by writing than verbally. In grade school, I devoured books and was consistently reading above my grade level.

Best as I can figure it was related to being an introvert and only child in a family of extroverts that had multiple siblings. I'm also a better listener than talker and am very good at learning just by watching.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:03 PM on December 6, 2009

Sounds a lot like me, so I hope you don't mind if I go ahead and talk about myself...maybe something will sound familiar.

I didn't speak until late 2, nearly 3. I never got therapy for the word retrieval thing although I had that too (and still have it a bit), I've gotten good at covering for it or just saying 'I've lost my train of thought". I did used to mumble a lot because I was a bit shy and socially awkward, introverted. In my case, I attribute the word retrieval and a lot of the social awkwardness to my ADD, because retrieving information can be part of that disorder (as well as reading social cues, spacing out when people are talking, etc). but that doesn't mean ADD was your issue. The accent seems to point to something different.

From this site:
Students with a wide variety of disabilities are known to have word retrieval difficulties. These include specific learning and specific language disability, reading disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, fluency disorders, and brain injury. Word retrieval problems of one sort or another are associated with many types and locations of brain injury. Difficulty retrieving words can be caused by damage to several parts of the brain because word meaning information is stored in many parts of the brain. Word retrieval problems are particularly associated with the “language zones” of the left hemisphere (toward the back and bottom of the left frontal lobe and top of the left temporal lobe) and with other parts of the frontal lobes that are associated with retrieval generally.
So we might not be able to point to a specific cause. On the off chance that you might have ADHD/ADD, the book "Driven to Distraction" is a good, intelligent read that discusses some of the lesser-known aspects of the disorder.
posted by kathrineg at 9:16 PM on December 6, 2009

Oh, and I do sometimes have people say that I have an accent or ask where I'm from. I always assumed it was because I have lived in various places, and have moved from Colorado to New York.
posted by kathrineg at 9:18 PM on December 6, 2009

I also didn't talk until I was three years old. I was fine otherwise, and for the most part communicated by pointing at what I wanted and grunting. I'm male and I have an older sister (4.5 years). I think a lot of the time, she spoke for me, making it unnecessary for me to pipe in with anything. When I did start speaking finally, it was in sentences, not just single words. I was able to read by the age of four and a half, and my reading, spelling, and vocabulary were always several grades ahead in school.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:19 PM on December 6, 2009

My son talked late. When he was three, he only had a handful of words. His hearing was/is great, we had no serious trouble communicating with each other and he hit other intellectual milestones earlier than average.

I always suspected that he was lagging in fine motor control development. He seemed to have trouble enunciating the ends of words. I can still remember the first word he said the ending to: duck. Once he got that part down, we couldn't get him to be quiet. He basically went from a vocabulary of 20 words to speaking in paragraphs.

When he started school, he went to speech therapy, but the problems he had were subtle. He had trouble blending consonants and mumbled a bit. He also struggled with handwriting. His handwriting is still pretty craptacular, but legible.

He's an only kid, but I don't remember him becoming frustrated trying to communicate with us as a toddler. He was pretty tantrum-free, actually.
posted by zinfandel at 9:46 PM on December 6, 2009

I have a problem with word retrieval too, despite being an early talker. In my case it's probably due to the 12 or 15 concussions I managed to accrue before the age of 18.
posted by fshgrl at 9:58 PM on December 6, 2009

Another anecdote, except I'm the early talker who interpreted for my sister who didn't speak until she was 2. When she did start talking, it was in full sentences. My mother attributes it to the interpretation/word in edgewise effect and my sister's own perfectionist tendencies. My mother refused to worry about it, even though I was an early speaker as were most of the kids in my family.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:07 PM on December 6, 2009

I also didn't say a word until I was three. Very soon afterwards I could read, but I had tremendous speech impediments for a good while. I didn't have "word search" problems, I just tripped over all my words and couldn't pronounce maybe have the alphabet properly. Some other things that might or might not be related: I live in Germany now and find it absolutely impossible to lose my American accent; apparently having mastered the alphabet late I can't change it. I can't whistle and I definitely can't sing. I still have a problem of speaking too fact sometimes and tripping over my own words, it happens usually when I'm tired. I also can't make bubblegum-bubbles. So, maybe I have less fine motor control in my mouth-parts, but on the other hand I was unbelievably shy throughout my whole childhood and terrified of drawing any attention to myself, so that might another contributing cause.

My mother has done a whole lot of reading on late talkers and basically, as it was summarized to me, there doesn't necessarily have to be one cause; some people just start later than others, but it tends to be associated with boys, younger siblings, and some people say with higher intelligence.
posted by creasy boy at 11:11 PM on December 6, 2009

Perhaps everything was OK up until then?
posted by Sutekh at 11:19 PM on December 6, 2009

Just because you don't fit into the neat category of when society says a child should begin talking doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with you, or anything to be concerned about. Quite frankly it could be a combination of things; your older sibling did the talking for you, your family anticipated your needs, therefore you had no need to express yourself, your learning style may not be verbal or auditory therefore the focus or importance of you speaking wasn't there.

Society is really passionate about norms, it makes us feel safe...screw safe...I say you didn't talk until 3 because that is what worked best for you. Just because you didn't fit into some sort of normal range doesn't mean there was anything wrong with you. Perhaps you have talents that lie in a way that speech would have impaired their abilities, mentally or physically.

A better question might be, why does it concern you? Does it bother you? Do you somehow feel inferior because of it?

Fitting outside the cookie cutter ideal of childhood development is good for scientists...keeps them on their toes.
posted by gypseefire at 2:55 AM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Were you very athletic? A neighbor's son, same age as our daughter, took much longer to start talking, but he has great movement and is very adept at physical tasks.

I thought it might be similar to how senses work - if you're blind, all your other senses are elevated. If you didn't talk until 3, then you probably were advanced in other ways.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 5:20 AM on December 7, 2009

I too couldn't speak until I was 3. There's no shame in hiding it

Do I have ADHD? No.
Am I a middle/youngest child? No.
Am I autistic? No.
Do I have a speech impediment? No.
'Word Retrieval Issues'? Well, I guess I get stuck sometimes like everyone else.
Am I intelligent? IQ in the 130s - bright but not earth shattering.

In short: Don't lose too much sleep over it. Not every perceived shortcoming is an indicator of your mental health.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 6:15 AM on December 7, 2009

You're fine. It takes all kinds. My college roommate said she learned to talk in full sentences at the age of one but didn't even bother crawling or attempting to walk until much later. She said she used to bark orders from the sofa. She's not a genius, despite talking early, but she's not developmentally disabled (or lazy) because she started attempting to walk much, much later.
posted by anniecat at 6:51 AM on December 7, 2009

Hey, OP here. . .

Just to comment on something-I’m not too worried about the severity of it. If I was, I would have asked a higher authority than the internet about it. I’m fine now, and the answer isn’t too important to my sense of self worth-I was just wondering about it.

On the off chance it was indicative of something serious, I didn’t necessarily want it to be one of the first things that shows up when you check out my profile. I don’t have any issue telling people I know in real life about it, nor do I consider it something shameful.

For my mother, ‘you don’t need to worry about that, you’re fine’ isn’t so much an answer as a lifestyle decision (Dislocated fingers? Fine. Vomiting for five days? Fine. Stabbing pains in the ear not accompanied by fever? Fine), so I discounted her ideas about it.

As for the rest-I’m female, but will choose to both blame my brother for delaying my speech and take this as proof of my exceptionally high intelligence.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:33 AM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

The probable cause is that different children develop at different rates. In general, we all end up within the same range of functioning, and everyone turns out fine.
posted by decathecting at 8:17 AM on December 7, 2009

I didn't talk til late because I had ear infections and couldn' t hear well.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:52 AM on December 7, 2009

My daughter is 18 months old, and has chronic ear infections since she was born. She's getting tubes put in. The pediatric ENT told us that even though she can hear, everything may sound muffled to her. This is born out by the noticeable difference in speech between her and her twin sister. We think we can tell when she's trying to imitate words, but her pronunciation is very indistinct. This is in contrast with her sister, who says things like "ketchup" and "cheese" perfectly clearly.

The structural abnormalities in her ears that cause the frequent ear infections should self-correct in the first few years. You may have had some sort of hearing problem that corrected itself.
posted by uberfunk at 10:56 AM on December 7, 2009

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