Headstart for Life

The Invisibility of Pre-Linguistic Skills

Hi everyone, and welcome back to HeadStart For Life’s Blog, Beyond Therapy! Happy New Year! And thank you for joining us for our first post of 2019!

In my previous post, I discussed pre-linguistic skills, which are the building blocks of language, and why and how those skills contribute to the ability to communicate with others.

For example, joint attention is required for a child to share focus on an object or event with another person, and to absorb the information shared, often verbally, about that object or event. Clearly, without joint attention, it is difficult to facilitate speech or language development in a meaningful way.

While these pre-linguistic skills are important, they are more invisible than verbal skills, and it can be difficult to recognise how they present in children, as well as the strategies speech therapists use to develop these skills. In today’s post, we are going to shed some light on this while attempting to answer three of the most common questions we get from our parents.


1. “Is my child not working hard enough?”

Some parents believe that their children are not talking, or not using grammatically appropriate language structures, due to laziness. Research has shown, however, that young children typically practice their speech and language skills instinctively as they acquire them, rather than purposefully attempt to prevent those skills from blossoming.

Many other factors can contribute to a child’s delayed development of speech and language, such as hearing impairments, motor planning difficulties, developed speech patterns that are difficult to break, other structural concerns, or even emotional stress or anxiety. Delayed development of pre-linguistic skills, such as shared enjoyment (the ability to share a feeling with someone else), or joint attention, can also hinder the growth of speech and language skills. For example, if your child has not discovered the pleasure of shared enjoyment over their own isolated enjoyment, there is little motivation for them to learn to communicate!

Drills or verbal repetition may not be sufficient to address these issues. Your child is not purposefully attempting to avoid communication, but likely has not been equipped with the pre-linguistic skills required to facilitate their communication attempts. You may see your therapist involve stuffed animals, blocks, trains, or other games or activities that motivate your child, to develop that shared enjoyment and help them realise how wonderful it can be to engage with others.



2. “Will using gestures or AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), like PECS, prevent my child from using speech?”

Some parents worry that, if a speech therapist begins using gestures or AAC with their children, their children will develop an over-reliance on these non-verbal modes of communication and stifle their potential for verbal speech.

Research has shown the opposite. A review of the literature revealed that, rather than hindering speech, the use of AAC has actually been found to facilitate the development of verbal skills. Moreover, the use of gestures and/or AAC give children with inadequate verbal skills the opportunity to communicate with and be understood by others.

Without an adequate means of communication, children are often frustrated, which can lead to inappropriate behaviour, such as tantrums, aggressive behaviour, or withdrawal. In therapy, using gestures or AAC to allow a child to request something they want, or even to protest something they do not want, in a way that they are understood, often leads to dramatic changes in tantruming and communicative behaviours.

Communication through gestures and/or AAC also teaches children intent, a pre-linguistic skill that enables the delivery of a message to others, through verbal or non-verbal means. This is important: if your child has not been able to develop the intention or desire to communicate with others, there is no need for them to learn to communicate!


3. “We live in a bilingual home. Will that affect my child’s language development?”

Currently, there is no evidence in the research to suggest a link between bilingualism and language delay. Children from bilingual homes may be slower to begin speaking initially, and may mix both their language till three or four years of age, but they have not been found to have a greater difficulty learning to speak, read or write than children raised in monolingual households.

This suggests that, if children from bilingual families present with speech or language delays, it is not caused by their bilingualism. Rather, they likely face similar challenges to children from monolingual families, and likely may also face the same delays in pre-linguistic skills.


Conclusion: What might this mean for you and your child?

  • Recognising where the delays are occurring. A speech and/or language delay may be just that: delayed skills in speech and/or language. However, it might point to a delay in pre-linguistic skills, which can be harder to recognise. If you are unsure, approach your paediatrician or a speech-language therapist at HeadStart for Life or any speech therapy centre for an evaluation.
  • Working on pre-linguistic skills like joint attention and intent. These are easy skills to develop in the home setting. (For more in-depth tips on how to do this, see our previous posts: Helping Your Child To Develop Joint Attention, and The Building Blocks of Language.)
  • Consider approaching your child in a different way and with less frustration, stress and anxiety. This may involve changing the way you view your child. Their lack of communication likely stems not from laziness, but from a delayed development in a skill, whether verbal or pre-linguistic. Understand that if the delay is occurring in pre-linguistic skills, it may be more “invisible” to you, and harder to recognise. Our speech-language therapists at Headstart For Life are always here to offer their assistance.

Best wishes for a HeadStart for 2019!


Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Porter, G, & Caffiero, J. (2010). PODD Communication Books: A Promising Practice for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Perspectives on AAC; ASHA.

Simms MD, Schum RL (2011). Language development and communication disorders. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 114-122. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Natalie

Natalie has always been passionate about language and working with children, and finds nothing more rewarding than helping a child communicate successfully with the world around them. In her spare time, she indulges in superhero movies and musical theatre.

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