A few studies have suggested that shy kids are more likely to have language problems. A new study, however, from the University of Colorado and University of Chicago, paints a different picture of the link between temperament and language development. The findings, recently published in the journal Child Development, indicate that shy children are able to understand language on par with their more outgoing counterparts.

Researchers tracked the language development of 816 toddlers at 14, 20, and 24 months old.  Shyness was determined by the amount of crying, clinging to parents, and self-soothing behavior (such as thumb sucking) that the children demonstrated. The researchers evaluated each child’s ability to produce language (called expressive language) and to understand language (called receptive language). Expressive language was measured by the children’s ability to imitate sounds and words as well as verbally answer questions and ask for help. Receptive language was measured by the children’s ability to follow directions.

The results indicated no delays in the receptive language of the shy children. Lower performance in expressive language among shy children was found; however, the researchers determined this was not due to a developmental, physical, or language acquisition problem. Rather, the shy children were simply less inclined to interact with the researchers. The researchers looked at all the children’s language development over time. They determined that because the receptive language of shy children developed the same as the more outgoing children, shy children were functioning at the same linguistic level. In other words, as the researchers concluded, “They know it but they won’t say it.”

So what does this study mean for shy children? The take-away message is not to underestimate shy children, especially when it comes to their language capabilities. This study addresses the concern that parents and others who interact with introverted children might tend to speak less to them because of a lack of back-and-forth communication. Ultimately, this study emphasizes the recommendation that parents and caregivers should make a greater effort to converse with shy children more to help them better express themselves. In addition, the researchers suggest interventions such as play dates with similar peers that “target confidence, social competence, and autonomy to support the development of expressive language.”


  • Shy children are on par with other outgoing children when it comes to understanding language.
  • Children who don’t speak up more are still able to develop language skills at the same rate as other children.
  • Both outgoing and shy children learn expressive and receptive language skills at the same linguistic levels.

Last reviewed by Eva Benmeleh, PhD. Review Date: September 2020


  1. Health Day. Shy Kids Might Not Have Difficulty with Language.
  2. Live Science. The Real Reason Shy Toddlers Speak Late.
  3. Science Daily. Shy kids not delayed or deficient in language; they just speak less.
  4. The Atlantic. Shy kids know the answer; they just won’t say it out loud.


  1. My friend’s 7 year old daughter has the ability to speak, but is so shy that she will not talk around anyone other than her immediate family. She has been diagnosed with Selective Mutism. After years of thinking she was just extremely shy, it has been a relief to know that there are programs out there that will help her. She has struggled socially and will not even communicate with her teacher at school. She just started a therapy program so we are keeping our fingers crossed that it helps. 🙂


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