Feb 192015

The little girl’s lisp and the boy’s “British” r’s sound cute at age 3, but not in the adult speaker.

  • Do children outgrow early articulation errors?

Children learn to pronounce the sounds of their language from a young age by imitating what they hear and using trial and error.  By matching their own production to the sounds of adults, teachers and the world at large, children develop speech during the first years of life.  Most modify early errors by age 5 to 6 in a predictable pattern. A normal feedback mechanism based on listening and imitating is the key to how a child learns to speak.  By age 6, nearly all speech should be pronounced with standard sounds (within a child’s environment.)  By age 7 at the latest,  a child’s speech patterns become “natural” and will not self correct.

  • What affects normal speech development?

Frequent ear infections often cause delays in a child’s speech development.  The regular feedback loop for hearing and matching speech sounds can be disrupted by fluctuating hearing loss during ear infections and by congestion that persists afterward. Some children have difficulty in oro-motor dexterity so that imitating the speech sounds around them can become difficult.  Sounds requiring highly coordinated movements of the tongue may develop later (by age 6-7) — or not at all.

Once speech habits become ingrained, however, they become more difficult to change.  So the longer an incorrect pattern persists, the longer it will take to correct. The key to helping a child develop a speech pattern free of articulation errors is early intervention: before the ear to mouth feedback process shuts down — generally by age 5 .  After age 7, children stop modifying their speech patterns on their own.

Older children, teenagers and adults rarely listen to how they speak; what they’re saying becomes the focus.  In this way the errors in a child’s speech pattern become part of the adult’s normal speaking habits.

  • When should speech errors be corrected?

The earlier professional treatment takes place, the easier and faster the process to correct speech errors.  Teenagers and adults who are motivated to develop clear, error-free speech can be helped by a speech pathologist at any age.  But early intervention will prevent childhood problems becoming adult errors.

Most adults recognize that to some degree we are judged by what we say and how we say it.  To the adage “we are what we eat” one may add, “we are how we speak.”


Check back soon for more articles on speech and language, voice, writing and cognitive function.

Sep 042013

“Speak up, speak clearly.”  Sounds like a mother’s or a teacher’s reminder. Growing up, most people hear these words of advice.  Speaking in front of a class, an audience, interviewing for a job, meeting new people  — these are just a few situations in which speech counts.  Not speaking too softly, not mumbling or rushing your speech seem to be the keys to being a successful speaker.  Indeed, they can be considered as  cornerstones for effective speech.

But what’s behind the idea of speaking clearly? Surprisingly perhaps, the individuals we consider good speakers all share the virtue of what used to be called good “elocution,” a term one rarely hears now.  The basis of elocution is pronouncing the sounds of the English language with “standard sounds; that is, speech without articulation errors. Good articulation develops in childhood and needs to continue throughout the adult years.

Doesn’t everybody learn to imitate what they hear when they’re young?  The majority of people learn to articulate the sounds of our language in their early years.  But not everyone.  Frequent ear infections, colds, enlarged tonsils and adenoids are just a few of the reasons that speech skills may not develop uniformly. Children who don’t pronounce the standard sounds of English by the time they’re five or six years old may need speech therapy to learn to speak properly.  When these problems aren’t addressed or solved in the early years, the same speech patterns continue into adulthood and become one of the key reasons why some adults don’t “speak clearly.”  And if they realize they don’t “speak clearly” they may not be confident in “speaking up.”

Can articulation be remediated at any age?  While it’s certainly easier to change a speaking pattern at a younger age, adults can modify their speech at any age.  With children, the process usually works best in a play context in therapy supported by home practice with parents.  Older individuals can make these changes as well, sometimes with less difficulty because they recognize the problem and bring self motivation to the process.

What about the other keys to speaking up and speaking clearly?  The basis for all good speech rests on pronouncing the sounds of our language in the same way as everyone else in society. Once the fundamental issue of proper articulation is resolved, the other factors critical for effective speech can be addressed.

I’ve written about some of these other important elements in previous blog articles:  “The ‘Um’ ‘Ah’ Problem”  and “The Two ‘P’s’ for Effective Speaking“.   You might like to read further on the question of how to speak clearly.


Check back next week for more thoughts on speech and language, communications, and executive functioning.