SPEECH PROBLEMS IN KIDS:
what's normal what' s not
Although children aren’t born talking, they do listen from day one and become familiar with the different speech sounds around them.
There’s so much for a baby to learn when he’s born – how to crawl, wave byebye, use a cup and talk – and sometimes in more than one language! It’s no wonder that many have a few stumbles when learning to speak.
To get those tiny teeth and tongues to produce so many new sounds and sound combinations correctly is tricky. And errors that may seem cute at age two or three can start to worry you when your little one reaches age four or five.
Rest assured that it’s common for kids to make mistakes when they’re learning to communicate. But if his problems continue beyond a certain age, you’ll need to call in the experts.
SO WHAT’S NORMAL?
Articulation, as experts call it, is the formation of clear and distinct sounds in speech made by the “articulators”. These are the tongue, lips, teeth and palate (roof of the mouth).
You may hear your child changing sounds within a word. For instance, he may say “lellow” instead of “yellow”, “free” instead of “three” and “sicken” instead of “chicken”. And if he misses sounds, he’ll say “ca” instead of “cat”, “og” instead of “dog” or “bu” instead of “bus”.
The sounds “s”,“z”, “r”, “l” and “th” are particularly challenging, and usually the
last ones mastered because the tongue has to be placed in special positions to produce them (try them yourself and see). These speech slipups are all part of a child’s normal speech and language development. An “s” which becomes “th” is known as a lisp and is one of the most common articulation problems. This is an inability to produce the correct tongue placement for the production of sibilant sounds, or “s” and “z”. The tongue is raised towards (or between) the teeth, making “s” and “z” become “th” instead.
It can be frustrating to hear your child mispronounce a sound, especially as he gets older. But if he can produce it and use it correctly some of the time, it’s likely he’ll improve without help.
Thankfully, most children simply grow out of their lisps and other developmental articulation difficulties at an early age. Most can produce all common speech sounds by about six years old. Some will still have problems pronouncing the trickier sounds (“th”, “s”,“z”, “r” and “l”) at age seven or even eight.
Looking at intelligibility – the ability to be understood – is a useful measure in small children. Can you understand what he’s saying? When he’s at age two, you should be able to comprehend about half of his speech; when he’s three, about 75 per cent; and you should usually be able to understand everything he says when he’s four. This doesn’t mean there won’t be errors, though.
Generally, if his speech is improving each year, then it’s likely he’ll be fine without any expert attention. Speech and language therapists (known as speech pathologists in Australia and the US) usually recommend waiting until such kids are around seven years old before seeking help for articulation problems.
NOBODY’S TALKING TO ME
In an age where screen time has replaced face time for many kids, it’s not surprising to find that problems have started to crop up.
The number of primary school pupils in the UK with communication problems jumped a startling 58 per cent between 2005 and 2010, a 2011 study by its Ministry of Education revealed.
Instead of playing and eating together, more families now use screen-based
BILINGUAL KIDS MAY MIX UP GRAMMAR RULES FROM TWO LANGUAGES, OR USE BOTH LANGUAGES IN ONE SENTENCE. SUCH SLIP-UPS ARE NORMAL, SO DON’T WORRY.
technology – from TV to smartphones and computers – to occupy kids, Jean Gross, the UK government’s former Communication Champion for Children, explained to the
Daily Mail newspaper. Meanwhile, parents are increasingly working long hours to make ends meet, forcing them to rely on childcare, which varies in quality.
When they’re used appropriately, electronic devices can be a really useful adjunct to a child’s speech development. However, you should spend most of the time simply chatting with your kids.
Here’s what you can do to boost growth in their speech:
Repeat their phrases with correct articulation. “Mama, I thaw a lellow bird!” “Yes, you saw a yellow bird!”
Read books with your kid to help improve his speech and language.
Say what you see. “Look, a dog! A white dog. The dog is running fast.”
BILINGUALISM: DOUBLE TROUBLE OR DOUBLE HAPPINESS?
Experts used to think that being bilingual could cause language confusion and lead to more speech errors in children. However, recent studies have shown that this isn’t the case at all.
In fact, children who are raised bilingual are getting an even better brain workout. Such kids have been shown to have better problemsolving and multi-tasking skills than their monolingual pals.
They generally progress through the stages of learning language at the same rate as monolingual kids. Sometimes, they may mix up grammar rules from one language and use them in another. They may also mix two languages in the same phrase such as: “Xie xie (thank you in Chinese), I love my present!” These slip-ups are very normal and not generally something to worry about.
TWO CENTS ON ACCENTS
Some sound changes are simply part of an accent, not part of a problem. Listen to the speech your child hears around them. Are some words or speech sounds pronounced differently by family or friends?
For instance, “Mummy, I see a black cat” in some local accents may become “Mummeee, I see a bla- ca-” and “Can I go there?” might become “Can I go dere?” This is no cause for concern.
OTHER PROBLEMS TO LOOK OUT FOR
HEARING If your child suffers from frequent ear infections or makes many sound errors, she may have problems hearing, which can lead to speech problems. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.
VOICE Does your child have an unusual-sounding voice? Is it very high or low pitched? Is it scratchy, rough or a “nasal” sound? Voice problems can make it hard to understand your child and should be checked by an ear, nose and throat specialist together with a speech and language therapist.
MOUTH STRUCTURE Articulation problems can be caused by abnormalities in the structure of the child’s mouth, such as tonguetie or cleft palate.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN THERAPY
Treatment for an articulation problem focuses on helping your kid listen and produce different sounds correctly. Therapists use lots of games, stories and songs to help make the sessions fun.
Your therapist will also give you exercises and advice to help him at home. An average programme will be once a week for a few months, but this depends on your child’s problem and his response to therapy. Sometimes, just a few sessions are enough to fix the problem.
Check out the Speech-language and Hearing Association of Singapore’s website for useful links (www.shas.org.sg). Speak to your child’s teachers, too, if you’re concerned. They may be able to give you advice on getting help and support your kid’s therapy goals.
YOU SHOULD COMPREH
BE ABLE TO END ABOUT HIS SPEECH HALF TWO, AND WHEN HE’S EVERYTHING ND UNDERSTA
HE SAYS WHEN HE’S