New Brunswick

Could wearing a mask slow your child's speech and language development?

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred study into the effects of masks on speech and language development in children, but the results aren't yet clear.

The impact 'may not be as great as we think'

Elementary school students work at their desks while wearing medical masks.
Mask mandates in New Brunswick schools and early learning centres were lifted last month after students returned from March Break. (James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images)

As New Brunswick's education and health departments continue to deflect responsibility for re-imposing masks in schools, the province's chief medical officer of health made note of a seemingly high percentage of preschoolers with communication issues. 

Earlier this week, when asked about re-introducing mandatory masking in schools, Dr. Jennifer Russell said she takes a number of things into consideration.

"We recently learned that 17.9 per cent of students entering kindergarten have communication difficulties right now, and that's as a result of data from the early years assessment," she said.

But are masks causing speech and language delays in children?

"Anecdotally, yes, we're hearing teachers and speech-language pathologists are reporting that there seem to be many more children with speech-language and communication needs," said Caroline Erdos, a speech-language adviser for Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC)

But whether that increase has anything to do with masks is still too early to say, said Erdos. 

Caroline Erdos is an adviser with Speech-Language and Audiology Canada. (Submitted by Caroline Erdos)

Monika Molnar, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in language development in children, agrees. 

She said the pandemic has prompted a number of studies on the effects of masks on the development of children's communications skills. 

While the full effects likely won't be known for a few years, Molnar said early indications are that masks "can negatively affect language development." 

Molnar said young children learn language by listening to the sounds and by watching the movement of the speaker's tongue and mouth. They also pick up on context from facial expressions. If the speakers are masked, "children are missing half of the cues." 

She said masks also restrict the way a speaker moves their jaw or mouth, thereby affecting the quality of the sound. Add to that, the muffling effect, and children aren't always hearing the purest form of speech. 

Molnar said it's important to balance the need for masks with the communication difficulties that result. 

"Two things can be true at the same tine: (1) we need to wear masks to mitigate the effects COVID-19 and (2) wearing masks can have negative effects on language/communication development," said Molnar. 

Experts say children miss out on several visual clues about communication when everyone is wearing a mask. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Erdos said that although masks can delay speech and language in preschoolers, the impact "may not be as great as we think."

She said there are a number of other pandemic-related factors that could also be at play, including physical distancing, social isolation, and higher anxiety levels. 

Staying more than six feet apart can limit the visual cues children use to help them develop speech and language. Also, since families have been asked to limit their contacts over the last two years, some children may not have been exposed to a variety of speakers — something Erdos says is important as they learn to communicate. 

And the communication they get at home may have been affected — or even reduced — by the anxiety and pressures of the pandemic. Erdos said children may not have been receiving enough of the quality, face-to-face interactions with their parents. 

In some cases, she said parents may not even be aware their preschoolers are falling behind their future classmates. She said SAC has a number of online resources and ways to check whether a child is meeting milestones. 

Some more at risk

Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, professor emeritus in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Dalhousie University, said children who already have difficulties in acquiring communication skills will be most impacted by the pandemic.

"I don't think that the current situation necessarily causes speech or language or social interaction difficulties, but it may exacerbate those difficulties," said Kay-Raining Bird. 

"Because of their preschool pandemic experiences, more children may not have acquired some of these skills—for example, one study in Ireland showed children may not be able to share and take turns as well as they could pre-pandemic because of reduced interactions with children the same age."

Make up for lost time

Now that mask mandates are lifted in most areas of the country, Molnar suggests parents of young children make up for lost time. She said they should increase the amount of face-to-face communication with their children and make sure children are looking at them when they speak.

Erdos also recommends increasing a child's interactions with "proficient language models." 

She says most children will likely be able to catch up to their peers. 

Current stats not available

The Department of Education was asked for more details about the learning difficulties identified by Russell earlier this week. 

It turns out that the numbers she used were for the 2019-20 school year and would have pre-dated the pandemic. 

Danielle Elliott, a spokesperson for the department, said this year's statistics are not yet available. 

She said the 2022-23 budget includes funding that will "result in additional speech-language pathologists, among many other specialists such as social workers, behaviour intervention mentors, guidance counsellors, resource teachers, and resource specialists in assessment and intervention."


Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at