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.