Parents have asked us about twin and triplet speech and language development. We know from research and experience that twins create what is known as “twin speech.” This can happen in families where there are triplets or higher multiples, as well. It was long thought that this twin speech is a new speech that the children are creating.
However, it seems that this speech is actually the twins imitating each other’s immature language abilities. “Twin language”, often called idioglossia or autonomous language, is a well documented phenomenon among twins. One study found twin language to occur in 40 percent of twin pairs (Lewis & Thompson, 1992).
Studies have documented that twins are more likely to demonstrate delays in speech and language skills, with males typically showing a six-month greater lag than females (Lewis & Thompson, 1992). However, studies have also documented that twins typically catch up in their speech and language development by three to four years of age (Lewis & Thompson, 1992). Language delays are typically characterized by immature verbal skills, shorter utterance lengths, and less overall verbal attempts.
There are several possible causes for speech and language delays in twins, including unique perinatal and environmental factors. For example, premature birth and low birth weight are more common among twins than singletons (Bowen, 1999). Additionally, twins may receive less one-to-one interaction time with their caregiver, as both infants are competing for time and care.
Although it is more common for twins to be delayed in language development, there is danger in assuming that they will catch up down the road.
Twins who have true speech-language disorders may not catch up, and will benefit greatly from direct intervention.
If you are concerned about your twins’ speech-language development, it is best to seek guidance from a licensed speech-language pathologist.
Face-to-face interaction may be the most valuable tool you have. As much as possible, seek opportunities to interact with each twin individually. For example, if there are two available parents, have one parent read with one twin, while the other parent plays with the other twin. Or you might make a special “mommy and me” time to read a book together or run an errand.
During infancy, respond to and imitate your twins’ facial expressions, vocalizations and babbling. Maintain eye contact as you imitate the sounds each child makes. As much as possible, try to respond to each twin individually. For example, if one twin asks a question, answer them directly. If one child follows a direction, give them direct feedback (e.g. “Wow John! You put your shoes on!”).
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This is a tip that I give to families that have only one child, as well! Use simple language to describe actions and events as they are happening. Make your language specific to each individual twin (e.g. “Jimmy, you are putting on your shoes!” and “John, you are putting your toys in the box.”)
Prompt each twin to listen when the other is speaking, and make space for the other twin to finish expressing their thought or idea (e.g. “It’s Jimmy’s talking turn right now. John, it’s your turn to listen. You can have your talking turn next.”).
Choose books with large and engaging pictures that are not too detailed. Point to and label various pictures (e.g. “Ball!” or “Cow! Cow says moo moo!”). Ask each child, “What’s this?” and encourage them to name pictures. Young children may not be able to attend to a book for very long, and that’s okay! Follow each child’s lead and don’t feel pressured to finish a whole book. Instead, focus on keeping literacy activities fun and engaging, and enjoy the few pages your children will read.
During infancy, engage each child in sound play, pairing different sounds with silly actions (e.g. “oo”, “ee”, “da”, “ba” or “ma”). You might knock over a block and exclaim “uh oh!” or you might make environmental noises during play (e.g. “car says beep beep!” or “cow says moo moo!”). Encourage each child to imitate various sounds as they explore and play.
For example, if your child wants to be picked up, you might reach your hands up high and say, “Up!’ or wave your hand as you say, “Bye bye!” Point to objects as you label them (e.g. “ball!” or “milk!”).
Play finger games such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, “Wheels on the Bus”, and “Pat-A-Cake”. You might also play “Peek-A-Boo”, clap your hands, or blow kisses.
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