The Language Burst: My Journey with Late-Talkers


When I first heard about this, these “language bursts,” it was from our speech pathologist (the person who coaches me with Kate and her language). The way she described these bursts was not, at all, scientific. In fact, as I’m learning on our own journey, this language thing sometimes isn’t scientific at all. (Probably because language lands completely in the domain of our kids, and if you haven’t looked around lately, each of our kids are completely and totally, different. Oh. And they each of their own way of doing things.)

So, I figured a language burst would be, you know, how it sounds.

Language. Burst.

Got that.

I was told that, “I’d know it when I saw it.”

And when Kate was gaining more trust in her words? My speech pathologist would shake her head and say, “Oh, no. She hasn’t hit her burst yet.”

Hmm. Well, okay then. Me, I was personally thrilled to hear Kate saying “up” and “more” and all the names of her My Little Ponies.

Turns out my speech pathologist was totally, totally right.

I had no clue, zero clue, what a language burst was.

Not until it happened.

Now, if you’re new on this journey with your own late-talkers (or any child who isn’t talking at the age marked as “appropriate” by your pediatrician), you’re not going to have any clue either, much like me, about what it is or even what it looks like.

Now again, every kid is different and your child’s experience probably won’t look like Kate’s (or maybe it will, or maybe there will be parts but not the whole). What I wanted to do here was simply share. Share our experience, share what this can look like, and hopefully, provide a twinge of hope for those parents out there who are patiently, and longing, for this same moment with your own kids.

When I first spoke with our speech pathologist, Mary Camarata, Kate had just turned three and said only a few functional words (meaning words she said all the time). I mean, we’re talking about “no” and “baby” and that’s about it. And like every parent, I was anxious to know when Kate would start talking, but at the same time, I was also different.

I had finally found my center, my grounding if you will, and I was okay waiting for Kate. I didn’t need to know when. I didn’t need to know when she’d “normalize.”

And when Mary told me that Kate probably wouldn’t talk until she was four, or four and a half, I was fine with it. I trusted in Kate, I trusted in myself.

But, to keep up my spirits, to show our growth, for me and Kate together, I kept a journal. Sure, I wrote the words she would say (and then would “tuck away”), but I also recorded experiences… how she would respond, physically, if I asked something of her. Or if she allowed another mom to put on her jacket while I was busy with Eric. Her trust and comfort in others was just a big a step as a new word was.

I kept my journal and the words, as Kate reached three and a half, slowly ticked upwards.

For Kate and her temperament, her trust, her mastery in all things, is huge. If she is not confident that she can nail something with 100% accuracy (think learning to talk here), she gets extreme anxiety and will not do it. The idea of not doing something perfect, or a word sounding perfect, caused such anxiety that she didn’t even want to try.

The first time I heard the word “water” was on a nature Friday. We were coming back from a hike, near the ocean, and she said, “water.”

I’m not sure if she referred to the water bottle in the backpack or the ocean, but there it was: water. (Actually it sounded like wa-dee.)

Just imagine Kate slowly dipping her toes into this giant ocean of words.

As she gained confidence, she’d put her toes in a little deeper, and then would draw it back. She’d say, “pu” for the word, “push” (to get pushed more on the swings). She repeated “step” when I told Eric to “step” into the pool.

The first time she said, “mom?”

It was a whisper.

And then she’d sheepishly look at me and close her mouth up tight.

Kate would say, “daddy” when she wanted daddy to play with her. She started vocalizing at the park with her close friends who she trusted. She would say, “yippee” and “hi.” She would say “bop” for “stop.”

When Kate held out a ball to me, she said, “ba.”

I would say, “that’s right. Ball.”

“Ba,” she said again.

This was how it started. Little tiny steps forward. Her little toe slowly going deeper, and then pulling back away. And I was nothing but patient and kind and comforting. I knew what she needed from me. She needed to try the words, and she needed to trust that saying them incorrectly was okay.

Fast forward to her birthday. Kate turned four.

It was the first time I clearly heard the most beautiful word ever: Mom.

While we were playing on my bed with Grandma over, Kate said to me: “Hi…… Hi…. Mom.”

She wanted to play with me and not my mom.

And she told me that.

Then it only got faster from there. At her birthday party, when the other kids were playing and running together, Kate learned another phrase: “Ready, set, go!”

At the park, when I told Kate it was time to leave and said to her, “we’re going now.”

She repeated, “going” (and in front of her friends).

I had an update call with Mary. She loved that Kate was making more words attempts more often, that they were sometimes hard to understand though I clearly could. She told me I would see Kate vocalizing more and more, that her phonology (the speech sounds themselves) were still immature and her feelings of insecurity were still huge (it was why she was using the word “no” so much).

Mary told me to wait a little longer, that we would know between four and a half, five years, for Kate to decide to say words.

Me? Heck, I was ecstatic with the words I was hearing. Kate could take until five; I didn’t care because I loved the progress we were seeing. I loved the confidence and trust I was seeing in Kate. It didn’t matter how long it would take us to get there, we would get there. I could sense that Kate had specific words in her mind, words that she was trying to say and willing to say.

Turns out, she only needed a few more months before the words really started coming.

I added more and more to my journal. Listing the words out every day. We met with Mary in person, for the first time, at the end of September and while I was thrilled with where we were, we still hadn’t hit Kate language burst.

Not until October did it start, and it felt like an explosion.

Every day, more words. Every day, she was repeating words I’d said (something she’d never done before). Every day she growing more confident and comfortable. At the pool she would say to her friends, “help me,” and they would help her put on the goggles. I was no where near this exchange; she said these words to her friends, and them alone.

She hadn’t needed my support, or my just being near, to trust the words.

Every week it felt like she said more and more words to my mom friends, and adults in general (the people she’s shyer and more cautious around).

Her words have grown to the point where my journal only records new and notable moments. There are simply so many words that it’s impossible for me to write them all down. We have moments with each other, speech play that is happening every moment she’s awake. Every interaction is filled with words, filled with her trying to convey to me her wants and needs. And if I try to understand and say the word she hadn’t meant? She says no and tries again.

She tries again, even though the words weren’t perfect or understandable the first time. She tries again.

Imagine this giant crashing wave.

Or, to go back to my earlier swimming analogy, Kate has full-on, cannon-balled into that water.

It started small and tentative, then picked up speed, and yet still our speech pathologist had said: not yet.

Well, I get it now.

I really, really do.

Kate took the words she had and put them together into phrases, and now, into sentences. I about fell out my chair when she first said, “May I have iPad now?

I mean, there’s grammar in there too. There’s an understanding that she is the “I” person. And there’s also the fact that she’s using manners, which I never purposefully set out to teach her.

And with that sentence she used? Insert another word, like “phone” or “hot dog” or “chocolate.”

She’s using some “w” words (think “where” and “what”). “W” words are in general harder because they have this almost abstract concept to them. Yet, she’s learning them.

The other day she said, “Baby, where he go? Baby!”

Or, “What do here, Mommy?”

And now, at this moment in time, March, 2017, Kate is still in the middle of this explosion. She has an explosion of sentences, is adding more and more familiar words to what she already has.

For example, she might have started with the word “help.”

This changed to, “help me.”

Then, “Help me, Mommy.”


“I need help.”

As well as…

“Can you help me, Mommy?”

Look at all those different ways she is asking for help. All the different sentences she’s put together that mean the exact same thing: she needs help.

She even went to the pool and when she realized none of her friends were waiting outside, said to me, “Where Kyla go?”

A friend’s name.

In a sentence.

Can you imagine the absolute joy I felt? The pride I felt for her that we have come to this moment in time?

Or when she held her toothbrush to me and said, “May I have some more?” (She was referring to toothpaste.)

Or, when she was looking for me in the house (and couldn’t find me) said: “Where did you go, Mommy?”

Her journey with language started so small. It started with her being afraid to trust in her words, and slowly, trusted in me (after our false start with Early Intervention and then speech therapy). And it’s not just about her spoken words either. It’s also about her understanding words, that’s as (if not more) important. Her receptive language has leapt forward.

When we were at the pool walking home, she had a towel on. She said, “fly.”

I asked her, “Do you want to fly?”

She nodded her head, so I told her, hold out your towel and pretend you’re flying!

And she did.

Not only did she run with her arms spread out, towel flapping behind her, but she had understood me. I spoke in a way that was more complex, that this word “pretend” wasn’t one that she could visually picture in her mind to know what I’d meant. And yet, she had still understood.

This is what Kate’s language burst has looked like.

It’s a wave that we could see coming, slowly at first, then faster and faster. When it hit I barely registered because we were already in the middle of it. All I knew, is that we were there.

She was there.

And every week, parents who have known for years, many who see her every week are constantly telling me how they can’t believe it. I can see their shocked expressions when Kate communicates, with words, what her needs are. And she’s communicating it to them. Not to me.

What shocks people even more is when they comment on how far she’s come in a year, and I shake my head and say, “No. This is how far she’s come in just five months.”

And that, folks, is what a language burst looks like.

Okay, maybe not all, but definitely Kate’s. Language bursts usually come in waves, and when you’re riding one, they can last for months. Mary had said Kate’s would last from about eight months to a year, but she was betting that for Kate, she would ride it for a year.

I completely agree with her. It doesn’t feel like these words are stopping anytime soon.

I hope they don’t.

In fact, yesterday after a park day where she played with kids ranging from 14 months old to 12 years, I put her in the car and she asked me, “Can I have the keys now, Mommy?”

I blinked. “Yes, you can have the keys.”

She took them. “Thank you, Mommy, bye!”

A friend, who was standing beside me and who has watched Kate grow in language for two years now, was absolutely shocked (especially about the use of “thank you” — which to be honest, still shocks me every time I hear it).

This has been quite the ride and every day I smile in such joy at how far Kate’s come, at how we all came to this place, to this moment in time, because we chose trust.

We chose to trust in her to tell us what she needed.

We chose to trust that we, as parents, knew better than anyone else how to help her. And this, really, has been as much a victory for us as it has been for her. But the true joy I feel is actually much simpler:

I finally get to hear the beautiful sound of my little girl’s voice.

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