Mystery Years of Silence
July 29, 2012 9:32 PM   Subscribe

I apparently stopped talking from just before I was one till I was about four. Should I be worried?

According to my family, as a tot I used to be somewhat bilingual (I'd say the same word twice in two different languages), but then I mysteriously stopped talking till I was about four. They sent me to every doctor and therapist they could think of (I have vague memories of speech therapy), ruling out mental disability or deafness, and one of them suggested that I was getting confused with multiple languages in the house so it'd be best if they chose to raise me in one language. They chose English and it has been my primary language ever since. (I did pick up Malay from school and am pretty fluent, and am conversational in Bengali but can't read it.)

This tended to be more of a running joke, especially since I'm known for often being a chatterbox. There wasn't really any reason to explore those mystery silent years further - but just now I read an article about feral children where one of the interviewees (a Child Protection Services type person IIRC) says that a 4 year old not being able to speak is a red flag: and now I'm worried.

Is it possible that something happened or snapped to make me silent for a few years in childhood? I do not recall any incidences of child abuse nor have anything to suggest that it was possible, only that my parents do have a tendency to infantilise me and ever since I could remember I was always fighting for independence. I've had various MRIs and other physical tests and both my ears and my brain work OK. I do have a history of depression/suspected bipolar first diagnosed in my teens. IQwise I qualified for Mensa, but other then that I don't think I have any unusual learning issues. (I did well at school, despite it being a socially traumatic experience, but that was long after I started talking again.)

Is a break from verbal communication as a toddler normal? (I was apparently still very communicative, usually by pointing) Is the idea that I could have been confused by multiple languages valid? Am I overthinking this? Is this worth exploring further or should I just chill?
posted by divabat to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The thing about feral children is that they never acquired language. You acquired it, you just weren't using it. You're fine.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:34 PM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

the multiple languages thing is a bunch of hoo-ha. and you're speaking now, so you're fine. i would bet a bunch o money your shutdown had was a reaction to parental neurosis - if all of this actually happened, even? how much is your memory and how much is their story? it kinda sounds like a dramatic rationalization for raising you in english only. i'm not saying i know what happened, but something's fishy.
posted by facetious at 9:38 PM on July 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

I've heard anecdotaly that bilingual children are late talkers because they have to sift through both languages, but that once they do start to speak they are quite fluent (often in both languages). Sounds pretty much on par with your experience. Maybe there was an influx of the second language around the time you were one? Did you move somewhere where you were exposed to more of one of the languages all of a sudden? A relative moved in who only spoke one of the languages, maybe?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:38 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

You apparently got along quite well without speaking, and probably subconsciously figured why bother? (I know one kid now who worried his parents because he barely talked, he just pointed: he was an only child, and both of his parents were only children --- as the only kid around, with two parents and four parents catering to his every whim, he didn't need to talk.... but when he was put in daycare, and it was talk or be ignored?!? He talked.)

As for the stopping then starting --- did you perhaps acquire a sibling or two around then? I could see a kid 'reverting' a bit when pushed off Mom's lap by a younger sibling's arrival, and/or resuming talking when a younger sibling also talked.

Whatever the cause, you've got no reason to worry: you're fluent in three languages, which is more than many people.
posted by easily confused at 9:46 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't worry about it. It's not that you couldn't speak--you just didn't. I apparently didn't bother with speech until I could form full sentences with appropriate syntax and grammar.

(Feral children don't acquire language during the so-called (and hotly debated) "critical period" and then seem to never be able to acquire it.)
posted by xyzzy at 9:46 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My parents were migrants from Bangladesh to Malaysia; by the time I was born they had acquired enough Malay to be passable but not enough to really be fluent in it. Even now my parents' command of Malay is akin to my command of Bengali - passable but grammatically a mess. My older sister and the housemaid/nanny-type person were fluent in Malay, but my sis was only 11 a t the time. According to my family (inc my sis) the logic was that Bengali wouldn't be useful since hardly anyone else in Malaysia would use it, and my family didn't know enough Malay to be confident about it - but everyone knew English AND it was used outside the home so that was what they picked.

I'm the youngest (and most overprotected!). I do recall when I started primary school I was originally placed in a class with all Malay students and my parents thought I'd be better off with a multicultural class largely due to the likelihood of people knowing English, but I did OK (Malay-medium schools for 11 years, no English-medium schools where I grew up) anyhow.

(My dad just rang to talk about something else and I asked him about this. He said "we didn't have the slightest clue - I was hoping you'd tell me what happened!")
posted by divabat at 9:54 PM on July 29, 2012

I think this is going on in my house right now - thanks for bringing this up!!

Before I start, every child is different, and I know an adult (and his parents+aunt) who joke about the fact that even though he had older siblings, he refused to learn to walk (or just walk?) until he was 2.5 years old, or something ridiculous like that. No, really! He made everyone carry him everywhere!

Children are weird. Just like cats, apparently;)

Short story - I think you are fine. Likely there was no trauma. Read to the end for more on that...

My son is almost 16 months old and very smart. My husband is Egyptian and speaks Arabic, French, English, and a bit of Spanish - fluency in that order. We live in LA, so EVERYONE speaks Spanish to my son. I speak English and French - I answer questions in Spanish in French (I'm a dumbass. It's annoying for me and everyone else;)

We teach our son some sign language. He uses gestures instead of words, even though he "talks" quite a bit. And he grunts a lot lately.


I'm resigned to the fact that it will be a long long time before he starts really communicating verbally in a coherent fashion.

I'm also very very excited that he won't be tragically/practically mono-lingual, like I mostly am.


I did some hypnotherapy about 3 years ago. I have exceptional recall of my childhood, with memories going back to at least 1 year old, and a little earlier. Something "unacceptable" may have occurred back between when I was 1 and 2 years old.

When I brought up this possibility to my hypnotherapist, she was all, "If you don't remember it, why would you want to??"

Fair point!


I'm not sure what your worry is here. My advice is to let it go.

Children and cats are weird. You are a fine adult.

No worries, eh!
posted by jbenben at 9:59 PM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

In short, the multi-lingual thing seems to be a spot-on reason for your delayed speech.

My friend's son grew up with English from his parents, and Spanish from his nanny. I remember he was very very shy about speaking as a 4 year old. He's fluent now in both languages as a 10 year old.

My poor son. With the Arabic, English, French and Spanish rockin' around daily in his life, no wonder he's all about gibberish, hand signals, and some grunts to get his points across.

That said, aren't you happy you have command of so many languages??

You are lucky!

Hopefully, my son will be like you:)
posted by jbenben at 10:08 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're fine now, so, no, you shouldn't be worried.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:11 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're an adult, and you speak normally now? You even have competence in two languages in addition to the one you use as a native speaker?

You're fine.

The multilingual thing might be a red herring. All the recentish research I've ever heard about implies that multilingualism doesn't present a problem for young children and that there's no real reason to force a child to be monolingual or prevent exposure to other languages. Though I guess your individual case might be different.

Feral children are typically either horrifically abused or grew up isolated from human contact. It's not really something that can have happened in an ordinary family or without you knowing this about yourself.

There are lots of stories of babies not talking at all until well into toddlerhood, but then being totally normal after that. It's not really that unusual.

Do you have any reason to suspect something traumatic happened to you, or are you just assuming that there must be something wrong, and maybe it's that? Do you otherwise feel like there's something wrong with you, and maybe it has something to do with this? Or is this just a random quirk of your childhood and you're casually wondering why? If the latter, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Kids are weird.
posted by Sara C. at 10:25 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I apparently did the same thing as xyzzy, according to my parents. I said my first few words quite early - 7, 8, 9 months. Spoke 100 words or by age one, then pretty much stopped talking/saying new words until age 3-4, at which point I started talking in complete, complex sentences. Seeing as you're fine now, I bet you were just quietly synthesizing language during those silent years.
posted by peep at 11:02 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually understand why you'd be concerned. While your situation isn't anything like a feral child's, some children who stop speaking for a period of time have experienced a trauma and can suppress memories of that trauma. That said, I don't think you have anything to worry about unless you are exhibiting other symptoms of experiencing a traumatic event that you aren't describing here. Anecdotally, when I was 4-5 years old, my best friend, who was a year younger than me, wouldn't speak to anyone but me. I always thought of it as pronounced shyness. She grew out of it and is an intelligent, well-adjusted adult, who as far as I know didn't experience any sort of abuse or traumatic event. So, nothing wrong with asking the question or wondering about the root cause, but it sounds like you don't have anything to worry about.
posted by katemcd at 11:08 PM on July 29, 2012

I have an MA in linguistics, but childhood language acquisition is not my specialty by any means. Having said that, what I recall from the one class I took in childhood language acquisition is that sometimes kids exposed to multiple languages take a bit longer to produce speech. We have evidence that their receptive language is just fine, but it may take them a bit longer to start using expressive language. Once they do, though, interestingly, they 'skip' several milestones. So where a monolingual kid might start using certain grammatical features at a given age, and more sophisticated grammatical features later, a multilingual child might (and I can't stress the "might" enough) not be speaking by the earlier stage, and then will suddenly start speaking with those more sophisticated grammatical features.

In other words, the evidence is pretty strong that the critical thing is not your language output at an early age, but your language input. On top of which, if you had language problems as a child that had an impact on your cognitive or linguistic abilities as an adult, it'd be pretty obvious.

So, yeah, be chill and chalk this one up to "human brains are kinda weird, and kids' brains doubly so". :D
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:11 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

And, too, if you perceived some parental anxiety over language – both in their concerns for you and your language development, and for themselves as regards their fluency with Malay – you may have internalized that a bit as a sensitive child and just decided with your child logic that buttoning it was the safer course all 'round.
posted by taz at 11:47 PM on July 29, 2012

I din't start talking until four, and it wasn't even complete sentences. Same for my three siblings.
We were exposed to two languages and lots of people.
We all developed normally and had happy childhoods.
I would chill : )
posted by mkdirusername at 1:59 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I seem to remember that one of my siblings or cousins had this issue and they are all fine. As did a friend on mine's sister. Same deal- progressing normally or even advancedly, and then nothing. And also the same reaction. Is Junior deaf? Autistic? Insolent?

Having watched a crop of kids growing up around me, I can tell you that language development is not nearly as uniform and structured as the "how to be a mommy" books would tell you.
posted by gjc at 7:34 AM on July 30, 2012

My oldest had delayed speech. He began talking in sentences and became frustrated and returned to two word phrases. This was supplemented with made up words, pointing, very talented miming, and just counting on me knowing him well enough to know what he needed. I stuck him in preschool when he was three to force him to talk. I knew he could, he just wouldn't. It took him twelve years to forgive me for making him talk.

When he was fifteen, he was telling me one night about a character in a game or story, something he was playing or writing. The character spoke mostly in two word phrases. I remarked that it sounded like him as a toddler. He got super defensive. Somewhere in there he made a very bitter, nasty remark about the character being stupid.

I gently drew him out. It turns out he stopped using sentences at age two because he felt he did it extremely badly in comparison to his mom. I had already had some college by the time I had him. I pointed out that he was comparing himself to a college educated adult when he was two. Using two year old logic, somehow two word phrases did not make him feel like he sounded stupid. So he returned to that and refused to use sentences.

My son is high IQ and also ASD. He needed the shove I gave him to make him talk. But it is a known phenomenon that some very smart kids don't say a word until they are four or five and then suddenly start speaking in articulate, grammatically correct paragraphs one day. I suspect my son's issue -- that he felt frustrated at not being able to express himself in an adequately sophisticated, complex manner -- is probably a factor. Given that you qualify for Mensa, my guess would be it is a somewhat developmentally normal thing for your level of intelligence.
posted by Michele in California at 7:49 AM on July 30, 2012

Flaubert didn't speak until he was four. They called him the family idiot.

Don't worry a bit. At all.
posted by Wolof at 7:59 AM on July 30, 2012

Nthing that you're worrying needlessly. :)

Also, I can't be the only one that's reminded of that old Borscht Belt joke?
"Up to now, everything's been fine."

posted by mon-ma-tron at 9:10 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

We have two sons, one just about to turn 10, one 3 and a half, and we have a bilingual household. I speak mostly English, my wife almost all in Japanese.

Our eldest son didn't really start to speak until the age of 3.

Our youngest right now speaks mostly in Japanese if he makes sense at all. Most of the time he uses his own made-up language.

It's hard to say why exactly. One thing that is different with our youngest is that he's growing up with a sibling. Our eldest speaks in Japanese at home, especially with his mother.

Anyway, I'm hoping one of these days our youngest will start speaking coherently one of these days. In fact, he's getting more and more understandable each day, which is great.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:33 AM on July 30, 2012

A previous AskMe with similar answers: Why didn't I say anything until I was three?

Thomas Sowell's book Late-Talking Children. Amazon's preview lets you read the introduction where he talks about "the special kind of child who talks late but otherwise shows at least normal, and often above normal, intelligence in other ways" and lists some famous examples.

Study by Whitehouse, Robinson & Zubrick (University of Western Australia): "Late Talking and the Risk for Psychosocial Problems During Childhood and Adolescence", abstract, pdf:
Regression models, incorporating the confounding variables, revealed no association between late-talking status at age 2 years and behavioral and emotional problems at the 5-, 8-, 10-, 14-, and 17-year follow-ups.
posted by nangar at 10:41 AM on July 30, 2012

I was similar: spoke then stopped.

You need to stop looking for problems in your past.
posted by rr at 12:09 PM on July 30, 2012

Parents can be really dramatic with the early-childhood stories. I don't think they're even lying, just telling just-so stories (to themselves, too!) so that everything from the past explains the present. I've stopped believing half of what my parents have told me about the wonders of 0-to-4-year-old me. Until you see pediatric medical records documenting this issue, you can stop even wondering about it.
posted by palliser at 2:30 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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