Those that follow the blog will know our twin boys have been in speech therapy through the Early Intervention Program for the past three months. When strangers meet the boys for the first time and notice their speech delay, they nearly always ask if they have a secret language. I’ve mentioned it myself in past posts, and it is true that delayed speech is more common in twins. But is the creation of a secret language really what’s happening? Do twins talk to each other instead of others?
The suggestion that my boys may be chatting away to each other instead of learning English is an interesting concept. And certainly, when sounds first started to develop, it felt like a possibility. However, Arthur and George are turning two this week, and their delay is now quite severe. Therapy has identified a number of issues causing them problems, none of which are related to their relationship with each other, and I am curious as to how much of their speech delay and unique babbling is related to them being twins at all. Today I’m looking at the difference between twin talk and cryptophasia, as well as sharing our progress with delayed speech and therapy.
What is Twin Talk?
Most cases of what is often called ‘Twin Talk’ are considered by experts to be basic mimicry. One twin learns a new sound, repeats it and the other tries to copy. This exchange can often appear as though twins are talking to each other, because they are very focused, taking the time to carefully listen and reply in a conversational manner.
They are not just mimicking sounds… they are mimicking conversation in the whole sense. Twins will watch mom and dad, or other family members in conversational exchanges, so they understand how it works. One person says their piece, the other then responds while giving eye contact. So when it looks like twins are having a full conversation about what’s for dinner, what they’re likely doing is having fun in a roleplay dramatization of the conversation they witnessed yesterday.
“Some people believe twins have the ability to generate their own detailed language, a twin language, but it doesn’t seem to be true in terms of a fully developed language system,’’ (Professor Stephen Camarata, talking to NY Times)
I believe our twins are doing just this when they chat. We get a lot of heated debates involving exchanges of “De de de de da!”. Their faces are extremely expressive, to the point our therapist described George as having a “face like an emoji”. Between the volume, speed, facial expression, pointing action and bouncing legs, the Twins can get their point across pretty well with only the sound “da”. They are mimicking the way I might speak to them or their sister… louder with a stern face if I really want something done now, smiley and high pitch if I’m playing etc. But are they talking to each other in a secret language? I personally don’t think so.
What is Cryptophasia?
Cryptophasia is the technical term for the development of a unique language by twins. Scientifically documented cases suggest the chances of this happening are much higher if twins are isolated from other children and parents. As a parent of a singleton and twins, I can confirm it is extremely difficult to give your twins the same opportunities for group play and one-on-one parent interaction as you would give a singleton child. And indeed, this is thought to be one of the reasons it is more common for twins to experience speech delay.
It is rare for twin talk babbling to develop into a full-blown language, and some scientists claim this only occurs in extreme isolation. The most famous case of cryptophasia was that of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, who had different names for each other and by the age of six had developed a well-structured language only spoken and understood by themselves. They spoke no English at all:
“Dugon, haus you dinikin, du-ah,” said Grace in one typically opaque conversation. “Snup-aduh ah-wee diedipana, dihabana,” Virginia replied… Twin-language structure is unlike that of any established language, and its syntax doesn’t simply reflect the usual mistakes made by children.(Jon Lackman, Slate)
Despite scientists claiming genuine cryptophasia is extremely rare, plenty of parents would argue their twins’ chit-chat is more than babble… their close bond has allowed them to understand each other and work together to build a secret language all of their own:
While I can’t speak for its scientific documentation, cryptophasia, the secret of language of twins, fills our home. Jen and I sometimes move to an adjoining room to watch Amelia and Olivia banter, coded words bubbling past their lips. What is strange to our ears is familiar to theirs. (
What Causes Delayed Speech and Twin Talk
There are many reasons children can become delayed in speech, however, twins have their own unique obstacles to overcome, and it is thought delayed speech is common in twins because:
- Parents of twins have twice the diapers, feeding, cuddling etc to do… that inevitably means more stress and less one-on-one time with each baby. Up close and personal speech interaction is crucial in speech development, and often twins just don’t get as much of it. As a twin mom, I have to agree… it’s tough!
- Twins are often premature. My boys were born at 36wks (technically 4wks early), which isn’t bad going for twins but I was shocked with how helpless they seemed as newborns compared to their full term sister. Prematurity is associated with many developmental delays, including speech, and statistically, boy twins suffer an even greater delay than girls.
- Twins don’t feel the same loneliness a singleton child may feel without communication. They have each other, and often this means the motivation to talk to parents and others isn’t as strong as it is could be. This is where the twin talk comes in… they get a response from their twin whatever they say!
What We Have Learned from 3 Month of Speech Therapy
Firstly, the Twins absolutely love their speech therapy sessions, which is great! We were initially assigned one session every two weeks, although following their first month and observing their progress, our sessions have been increased to every week.
it’s not about choice
It was suggested early on that the Twins were ‘choosing’ not to speak and a little tough love may help break their silence. I was instructed for homework to teach them the sign for a favorite snack and not give it to them unless they reciprocated the sign or word. This was a disaster. George gave me the saddest face in the world with quivering lip, while Arthur opted for total meltdown. After another couple of sessions, it was agreed by all that their issue wasn’t just stubbornness… they do not possess the motor skills to allow them to mimic complex signs and sounds.
Speech requires motor skills
In particular, our therapist has identified that the boys have a problem with bilabial articulation. This means they struggle to pronounce sounds such as ‘p’, ‘b’ and ‘m’ which require both lips to come together. They can close their mouth perfectly normally, but if you try it now, you’ll realize there is considerable muscle control required to move your lips to make those sounds. Tongue sounds such as ‘t’, ‘k’ and ‘l’ don’t seem to cause such a problem.
Signing Isn’t Always Easy Either
Due to the boys’ fine motor skill delays, complex hand signs are more difficult for them than some children. They picked up the sign for ‘more’ quickly but then when I introduced ‘help‘ and ‘milk‘ they all got mashed into one single sign. I decided to focus on signs that were distinctly different and didn’t involve complex finger separations and movements. So far, we have mastered ‘please’, ‘more‘ and ‘crackers‘ because these three signs apply to different parts of the body (chest, hands, elbow).
Movement and Words go together
Our therapist keeps reminding me to use movements when I say words. We have had good progress with the boys mimicking sounds when there is an action that goes with it. A basic example of this is when you fly a toy airplane and make a ‘neeeoooow’ sound. When I carry the Twins down the stairs I say ‘weeeee‘ and now Arthur mimics it really well. Building off this, coming up with an entertaining movement and sound, then ending in a word such as ‘splat‘ ‘stuck‘ or ‘crash‘ will encourage those little ones to give it a go. The boys find it hilarious when their little fireman character gets ‘stuck‘ in the Play-doh, and although they mimic the action and the build-up sound, we are hoping to hear an official ‘stuck‘ soon!
Arthur does shout ‘EGGS!’ when therapy begins because we always start with an egg game they love. It might not be Mom’s first word of choice but it’s a start! We’ve also had ‘go!’ when repeating ‘ready, steady, go!‘ at the top of the slide, and ‘hi/bye‘ (we’re on a hybrid at the moment) with a wave at the door. It’s slow progress but I’m confident we’ll get there. We were also advised to get the boys electric toothbrushes to tickle their mouths and ‘wake up the muscles’… they love it!
So Do Twins Talk to Each Other in a Secret Language?
I hate to burst the twin bubble here, but the experts generally say no, and as my twins get older I have to say I agree. Yes, there are obscure cases where a language of sorts is developed, but these examples are nearly always of children in a very unusual isolated environment. Twins do ‘talk’ to each other, I witness it every day, but consider it as roleplay and training for the real thing, rather than a language in its own right.
Having said that, I have seen George enthusiastically run up to a child his own age at the park and say “De de de de da!”. He was very disappointed when the little boy just stared at him in silence instead of giving the response George was looking for. Maybe he was asking a very important question, only to get blanked by a stranger that didn’t understand the language he and his brother share… just maybe!
If you would like to know how we knew our boys needed speech therapy, check out my last post on qualifying for Early Intervention, and these useful tips for speech development from North Shore Pediatric Therapy are great.