FAQs from the Child Speech Committee
Why does my child have a speech sound disorder?
The rough outline of typical speech development follows a predictable course even for children learning different languages: first the infant begins to produce speech-like sounds in babble at approximately seven months of age; next, recognizable words are spoken at one year of age; by the age of 4 years, the child is communicating with sentences that are intelligible (understandable) even to adults who do not know the child; finally, before the end of the ninth year the child articulates all the sounds in the language accurately on a consistent basis. Although children differ from each other in the way that that they speak, these milestones should be achieved at the expected ages; when these milestones are not achieved, a speech sound disorder may be diagnosed. The reasons for a speech disorder are often hard to identify because speech is complex, involving many structures and processes. It will seem obvious that the child must have normal structure and function of the speaking apparatus. Certain developmental disorders may explain speech disorders such as cerebral palsy which impairs muscle function, or cleft palate which impairs the flow of air through the mouth, or tongue tie which impacts the range of motion of the tongue, and certain dental anomalies that might make it difficult to articulate speech sounds correctly. These disorders are rare however and are relatively easy to identify. There may be subtle differences in the development of brain structures that impair the ability to coordinate speech movements–the resulting speech sound disorder, apraxia of speech, is difficult to diagnose but treatable with intense speech therapy. Speech sound development also requires intense listening experience–the child must learn which speech sounds are used in their language, and how those sounds are combined to create words, by attending to speech input from adults. Hearing impairments, even the mild hearing impairment associated with chronic ear infections, will impact speech development. Sometimes the child can hear sound perfectly but does not process speech input reliably and therefore has difficulty learning the speech sound system of the ambient language. For example, the child might not be sure whether similar words such as “tart” and “cart” mean the same thing or different things. This kind of phonological processing disorder is often hereditary and is associated with problems in speech and reading development. It can be frustrating to not know the cause of your child’s speech disorder but effective speech therapy approaches can be applied even when the cause is uncertain however.
What can I do to help my child’s speech development?
Parents are the most important influences in the child’s environment for promoting good speech development. The child learns speech by listening and by having good conversations. As the parent, you are in the best position to talk with your child about those topics that best engage your child’s attention. When you ard your child are jointly engaged in the same activity, talk about what your child is seeing and doing. Everyday routine activities are perfect because your child will hear the same words many times, perhaps repeated in more complex sentences as time goes by. Bathing, making breakfast, getting ready for school, playing at the park: all these daily activities are opportunities for rich conversations. Sharing picture books is an especially valuable activity for talking together: besides reading the story, talk about the pictures, respond to your child’s questions and comments, ask your child questions, and connect the story to your child’s own experiences. If you are concerned about your child’s pronunciation of a specific sound–perhaps your child says “wam” instead of “lamb”, you could share books or rhymes about lambs. However, it is best to use the book as an opportunity to model the difficult sound; do not try to teach your child correct pronunciation unless a speech therapist has advised you to practice saying the sound with your child. Therefore, you might have conversations like this:
Parent: Look at all the animals in the field! How many lambs?
Parent: That’s right, one lamb. And on this page, how many lambs?
Child: Two wambs.
Parent: Yes, I see two lambs, one lamb, two lambs. A white lamb and a black lamb. Remember we saw a black lamb at the petting zoo?
In this example the child hears the word “lamb” said correctly many times. He is engaged in the conversation but is not pressured to speak correctly or embarrassed by his errors. Overtime he will notice the difference between his own incorrect production and adult correct productions. This listening experience may help him learn to correct his pronunciation.
If your child is older and is continuing to misarticulate certain speech sounds, you might ask your child to engage in certain prereading activities while listening to sounds. For example, your child might say the “s” sound in a way that is distorted or slushy. Even with the older child, the opportunity to hear many good examples of the difficult sound will be valuable. You might cut out pictures together of words that start with different sounds such as “f” (feather, fish, forest), “th” (thistle, thorn, theatre), and “s” (saw, sand, soap). Ask your child to paste the pictures on to different pieces of paper marked with the appropriate letters. Alternatively, you might find pictures of words that start with “s” (saw, sand, soap) or end with “s” (bus, mouse, house); cut these out and paste them onto the right and left pages of a notebook. The idea is to give your child opportunities to listen carefully for the sound and decide which sound is which or where the sound is. Once again, do not practice speech production without the help of a speech therapist. If your child does not seem to be improving, a speech and language therapist can help you and your child with more specialized procedures.
At what age should a child be able to use all their speech sounds?
The age at which a child should be using all the adult speech sounds depends on the language/s that s/he is exposed to. The rate and route of speech sound development for monolingual children is expected to be different to that of bilingual children. Besides, even for monolingual children, the rate of development is different for different languages. For example, Maltese monolingual children are expected to have mastered the /r/ sound by 4 years of age, whereas in case of English children in the UK this may take up to 7 years to be mastered. However, in general more anterior consonants are produced earlier, e.g., /m/, /b/, /p/; stops appear before fricatives, e.g., /k/, /g/ before /f/, /s/; affricates and liquids appear later such as /ts/ and /r/.
My child is growing up in a multilingual environment. Is it better for his speech if we only use one language when we talk with him?
Children show early ability for learning more than one language and those who are exposed to bilingualism early on, are at an advantage, both in terms of speech and language skills as well as cognitively. When exposed to both languages from birth children become highly proficient in both languages, as long as they receive consistent and abundant exposure to both. Ideally, the languages that they are exposed to should be spoken with accuracy, ease, and fluency. The language exposure could be consistent in terms of person (i.e., one person speaks one language and the other speaks another language consistently to the child), place (i.e., the child could be exposed to the home language by the parents/caregivers and exposed to the other language at the nursery/preschool setting or grandparents home), or time (e.g., one language is spoken in the morning and the other language is spoken in the afternoon and often in different contexts).