Remember the much loved Looney Tunes character, Tweety? “I twat I taw a puddy tat!” was his or her catch phrase and was full of speech errors (a recurring theme in many Looney Tunes characters). A little birdie once asked me…. “When does it stop being all b’s and d’s?” She was referring to her then two and half year old son’s speech and his speech pattern reminded me of Tweety. So is this normal?
Firstly, ‘intelligibility’ is a term speech pathologists use to measure how easy or hard it is to understand someone else’s speech. Here are ﬁve facts you should know about speech intelligibility in young children.
The ability to understand a child:
1. …is unrelated to intelligence
2. …improves with age
3. …is better with family members than with strangers
4. …is easier with single words than in conversation
5. …is not related to laziness (but fatigue make be a contributing factor
Speech is a learned motor skill like walking or playing the piano and requires the individual to develop the motor planning and coordination of the tongue, lips, teeth, jaw, cheeks, breath (from lungs) to produce speech sounds. Their ability to send messages from the brain to the mouth and coordinate all the muscles involved in speaking is what contributes to their ‘intelligibility’.
So how ‘intelligible’ should my two year old be?
Many parents have developed such a keen ear for their child’s speech patterns that they can decipher most of what they say despite an untrained ear having Buckley’s Chance of understanding. Context and routine also support parents to become astute interpreters. You know that your child is obsessed with ‘biccies’, hasn’t eaten in a while and is standing at the pantry door saying ‘baba’ then you can make a pretty educated guess that they are saying ‘biscuit’. So perhaps a better indicator would be to take note of how difﬁcult it is for your friends, extended family or strangers to understand your little person.
Here’s a handy formula by Dr Peter Flipsen (2006) to help remember:
AGE IN YEARS / 4 x 100 = % UNDERSTOOD BY STRANGERS
Child 1 year of age = 1/4 x 100 = 25% of speech understood by strangers.
Child 2 years of age = 2/4 x 100 = 50% of speech understood by strangers.
Child 3 years of age = 3/4 x 100 = 75% of speech understood by strangers
Child 4 years of age = 4/4 x 100 = 100% of speech understood by strangers!
Bowen, Caroline. Retrieved http://www.speech-language-therapy.com/ on 12th July, 2017.
So back to Tweety and my friend’s little boy…both are doing a common speech process called ‘stopping’ where long sounds like /th/ and /s/ are replaced or ‘stopped’ with short sounds like ‘t’ (other short sounds include the likes of /b/ and /d/). Luckily, sounds don’t all develop in one fell swoop and some sounds are much easier to produce than others. We know there are 26 letters in the alphabet but these letters are actually represented by 44 sounds in English (20 vowels and 24 consonants). Of course, a two year old is not expected to be able to produce all 24 consonant sounds correctly but by age 8 they should have mastered all speech sounds. So here is a very basic overview (Shriberg, 1993) of what 8 consonant sounds should be expected at three broad age ranges:
Early 8 sounds (18 mths – 3 yrs): m n y b w d p h
Middle 8 sounds (2 – 6 yrs): t ng (sing) k g f v ch j
Late 8 sounds (3 – 8 yrs): sh zh (measure) l r s z th (think) th (that).
Retrieved from https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/speech-sound-development on 14th July, 2017.
So should I be worried?
Well we know it is normal for children not to be fully understood and children develop speech by using known patterns for replacing sounds for other sounds (like Tweety’s ‘stopping’ process) until they are ready to produce the more difﬁcult sounds.
All children will make ‘age appropriate speech errors’; basically they make the wrong sounds at the right age. Some children will be slightly behind and take a bit longer to get rid of an error pattern from their speech and this is called a ‘speech delay’. This basically just means their speech is a bit immature for their age. Other children will have unpredictable and inconsistent patterns in their speech that are not commonly seen and this is called a ‘speech disorder’.
These are the children where every conversation is a game of charades where both you and the child are working very hard to communicate! Check out the Raising Children website for clear information about things to look for: www.raisingchildren.net.au/article/speech_disorders.html
Both a delay and a disorder would beneﬁt from speech therapy which is usually ‘a fun experience for the child where they play games with a nice lady’. However, like any skill, reading, swimming or learning manners, speech therapy is far more successful if the strategies are reinforced at home by your child’s best teacher…you! In fact, in very young children, it is actually the parents who work with the speech pathologist to make subtle but crucial changes in the way they talk with their child.
But is it better just to wait and see?
The short answer is NO…Remember Tweety’s speech is cute but not forever. It is important to see a speech pathologist early if you have any concerns at all.
Here’s a link to ﬁnding a speech pathologist near you through Speech Pathology Australia: www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au
Think of seeing a speech pathologist like going to the doctor for a check up. If everything is ﬁne then you have peace of mind and you are armed with knowledge for the future. If there is something to work on, then you have addressed it early and with a professional. It’s a win-win situation!
Thanks for hearing our call,
Your Little Birdies xx!