Considerable research has been aimed at discovering the factors that distinguish late talkers who will and will not outgrow their language limitations. No factor has proven foolproof. However, several factors are associated with better as opposed to poorer outcomes. Children with age-appropriate language comprehension who use recognitory gestures (e.g., pretending to drink from an empty cup) are more likely to outgrow their language difficulties (Thal and Bates, 1988; Thal et al., 1991). In contrast, children with family members who have a language-related problem or a history of such a problem are less likely to outgrow their language difficulties and more likely to be diagnosed as having a specific language impairment (Tallal et al., 1989; Tomblin, 1989; van der Lely and Stollwerck, 1996; Weismer et al., 1994).
Given the difficulty in discriminating children who will grow out of language difficulties from those who will not, the most prudent (although perhaps not the most cost-efficient) strategy may be to intervene whenever a child shows early language impairment. There is, of course, always the possibility that labeling children as “language delayed” may affect how others view them and may, in the end, have adverse effects on them. Very little is known about this potential problem. However, it is known that intervention can do considerable good. It may be important to foster these benefits as early as possible, before the gap in language development widens.
Of particular significance is evidence showing that wide individual differences at school entry in vocabulary and other early literacy skills are seldom reduced as children move through school, and they can be exacerbated. This is true for children within the normal variation of language ability as well as for those with specific language delays. Evidence discussed below with respect to early learning that these initial differences set in motion very negative chains of events reveals the critical importance of language interventions that start prior to school entry. Moreover, early intervention that moves children toward normal linguistic functioning as quickly as possible may be able to forestall some of the problems with social skills that are demonstrated by children who are slow to develop language. Indeed, early intervention can have benefits, not only in vocabulary and multiword combinations, but also in areas not specifically targeted for intervention, such as social skills, speech intelligibility, and parental stress (Robertson and Weismer, 2000). Early intervention may be important, not because doors remain permanently closed without it, but because with it, doors swing open that might otherwise have been inaccessible at that moment in the child's development.