We don’t often understand the process of learning to talk until we need speech and language therapy. It’s something parents have little information about. We hear a lot about sleeping, eating, and walking, but talking is a bit of a mystery subject. That is, until it goes wrong. Parents might then seek advice from a speech and language therapist like my podcast guest, Weronika Ozpolat. And if your child has more than one language? It’s good to find a speech pathologist who understands how bilingualism works, and how different cultures teach children to speak in different ways.
Let’s talk about talking
What is speech and language therapy?
Let’s start with the basics because I don’t think many of us know (I certainly didn’t!) the difference between a speech problem, a language problem, or a speech delay. What’s a delay and what’s a disorder? What does a speech and language therapist do?
Ronni explains that a language delay is what parents commonly describe as a child being ‘a late talker’. A speech delay is when children are having some difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. A disorder, however, is where the difficulty delays development by more than six months. She explains that it takes a number of years for children to be able to consistently produce a new sound. This is normal. I’ve tried to show this visually in the diagram below. The earlier sounds are the easier, single sounds. The later sounds are clusters and trickier sounds like ‘r’, ‘sh’, ‘th’ and ‘zh’ (as in measure). You can read more about this here in the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders.
Like with any journey, language-learning has a number of milestones. For parents wishing to see how their child is getting on with talking, it is not helpful to compare their development with another child. Children all develop at their own pace. Ronni suggests looking out for the key milestone at age two years when children are expected to have between fifty and two hundred words. They may have more, but fifty is the expected minimum at age two. Children will also start putting two words together at age two (‘Daddy gone!’ is one I remember my children saying every time he left the room!) Three year olds will be putting three or four words together.
About one in five children start school with speech, language and communication needs. It is pretty common for children to need some support with their speech and language. This is true across all cultures and languages; any child could need some support. If parents feel that their preschooler is not meeting the developmental milestones above, contact your health visitor or GP for a speech and language referral.
The speech and language therapist will do an assessment to gauge the child’s language development. This might involve some playing and talking, and discussion with parents. They will then work out what kind of therapy is most likely to help with your child’s specific needs. There are all sorts of ways of helping speech development, and they will advise parents how to best support the child too.
To correct or not to correct?
Back to ‘normal’ or expected speech development. Young children have a limited range of speech sounds, and often it is only their parents who can understand them! There are also lots of cute ‘mistakes’ that children make, like saying ‘tat’ instead of ‘cat’ (this is called fronting, incidentally). These are nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the process of learning to talk. If they simplify words, like saying ‘nana’ instead of ‘banana’, parents can model the correct language by repeating ‘yes banana’. But it is not helpful to try and force a child to pronounce things correctly if they are not at the right age and stage. With lots of good modelling, they will get there eventually and all in good time.
My five year old still says ‘lellow’ instead of yellow, and is teased mercilessly by his older siblings. They have already forgotten that they did exactly the same thing! They also said ‘ephalent’ instead of ‘elephant’, and ‘psgetti’ instead of ‘spaghetti’. These are really tricky words with multiple syllables, but eventually they got them all in the right order.
Bilingualism and speech delays
It is a common myth that bilingual children are more prone to speech delays. I have talked about this with Katerina Draper and Eowyn Crisfield on previous episodes, and Ronni reaffirms that bilingualism does not cause speech delays. If a child is presenting a speech and language disorder, the speech therapist will look for signs of the disorder in all of the child’s languages. If the delay or disorder is only apparent in, say, English and not Polish, it is more than likely just a normal part of the child’s developmental process.
All speech and language difficulties will affect all children. It doesn’t matter whether they are monolingual, bilingual, multilingual… all children can develop some of these speech and language delays. Bilingualism does not lead to a speech delay.Ronni Ozpolat on why bilingualism does not cause speech delays on the podcast
I think part of the confusion about language delays and language development is that we only use one word for language in English! In French we helpfully have le langage and la langue, to distinguish between language in general, and individual languages. A language delay/disorder underlies the acquisition of individual languages, so regardless of whether you’re learning one or ten languages, the disorder will appear across them all. If you are hearing impaired, for example, you won’t hear sounds and reproduce them. It doesn’t matter how many languages you are hearing, it’s the hearing that is the cause of the problem not the languages.
Autism and language
Children with a diagnosis of autism can have a diverse range of speech, language and communication issues. Some people might have above-average language skills, learning twenty or more languages, and others may be non-verbal. Autistic children can be raised bilingual. Ronni discusses why it is really important that a child with autism is not deprived of a language that is in their family. Even if a child is non-verbal, that doesn’t mean they do not understand what is being said. As I discussed with Eowyn, bilingualism is not just about speaking a language. Languages are part of our roots, our connections to our heritage, and our emotional bonds with caregivers. This is a really important section of the podcast, I think, as I’ve heard of families being advised not to speak to their autistic child in multiple languages. Has this ever happened to you?
There’s a saying (a rather old-fashioned one, perhaps!) that children should be seen and not heard. In some cultures, adults don’t speak to children at all, leaving it to other children to converse with the under-fives. In some cultures we focus a lot on the ‘naming of objects’ with young children. “Yes, that’s the cat! Oh did you see the fire engine?” And some cultures focus more on the verbs, or the functions of objects, rather than the names of them. There is such diversity in the way we talk to our children, that this will obviously have an effect on their speech development. No one way is better than another. The children all end up talking, regardless of the route taken (unless the adults deprive the child of language input – listen here to learn about that!)
A child who has heard more nouns will learn more names of objects. And, this is the key part, if a child is being assessed by a speech and language therapist who is not aware of cultural differences and practices around language development, they may equate words with nouns. This might then lead to a misdiagnosis, if they think the child doesn’t meet a developmental milestone, but they’ve just been measuring the wrong thing. We make a lot of assumptions based on our own experiences of how we do language. There is more than one way of raising our little talkers! Some culturally nuanced understanding of language development would be a very helpful thing for us to know as we live in increasingly diverse societies. Teachers and speech therapists get little training on this, which is a shame as it’s really interesting and helpful information.
I really enjoyed chatting to Ronni about how children’s language develops, and I’m delighted that she’s joining our ‘little language revolution’, Babel Babies. She will be offering families speech and language therapy appointments, and she specialises in bilingualism. You can read more about her here, and also on her blog Multicultural Motherhood. This is where you will find links to the parenting online courses that she mentions, and also find tons of brilliant ideas for homeschooling.
Listen to Episode 22 below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Google and Podbean.