If you aren’t living with a child or speaking to one regularly, you probably don’t know what one sounds like. You may have a vague concept, but with no direct source, unfortunately it’s impossible to know if this concept is accurate.
One of the best ways to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting the speech of a child is to consider Child Speech Acquisition. This describes the stages that a person takes to learn language natively as a child. This process typically happens naturally from birth to approximately age 4.
Phonemes and word formation:
Phonemes are the distinct units of sound that make up a language which distinguish one word from another. Some examples in English are: p and b. These sounds distinguish the words “pat” and “bat” from each other. The letters of our alphabet represent phonemes, but so do sounds like ch and dg in “chat” and “judge.”
Phonemes are some of the first things that children learn to replicate. As early as 10-30 weeks in age a child can make cooing and syllable-like vocalizations, especially vowel sounds. By 2 months they can start making distinct phoneme sounds. A study by McLeod & Belle from 2003 found that by 8 months they could make use of serval phonemes.
Soon, the child begins to grow teeth which makes it easier to articulate sounds. Moving in to the first year, the child will likely start speaking their first words and begin to gain a vocabulary. They are also prone to making up their own words which are referred to as “proto-words” or “phonetically consistent forms”. By the second year, words are common and their vocabulary grows.
As they learn to make words, they also are prone to several speech errors:
Final consonant deletion is when a speaker fails to voice the final sound of a word, so, “dad” becomes “da” and “cat” becomes “ca.”
Cluster reduction means that the speaker only pronounces one sound of a pair, for example, instead of saying “spit” they might say “sit” or “pit”. When I was a child I would call spoons “poons”.
Consonant assimilation is when one consonant influences another resulting in words like “beb” instead of “bed.”
Unstressed syllable deletion is when the unstressed syllable is left out of word such as “telvision” for “television” or “libary” for “library”.
Velar fronting is the act of swapping the phonemes k and g which are made near the back of the throat for consonants which are farther to the front of the mouth. The phonemes r and l are also typically replaced with a w as in “wun” for “run” and this is called gliding.
Epenthesis is when a vowel is misplaced or inserted in a word creating words like “balack” for “black.” Vocalization is when a consonant is replaced with a vowel.
Stopping is when fricative sounds are replaced by stops, like “toup” for “soup.” Voicing reversal can occur when a speaker switches a sound for the voiced or unvoiced version of it, such as, making “pat a dog” into “bat a tog.”
Of this list, cluster reduction, epenthesis, vocalization, gliding and stopping are still common after the age of three, while the others tend to drop off sooner.
By age three a speaker should be largely intelligible. If they are unable to get their point across it is likely because they are missing the vocabulary, rather than the ability to produce the sound.
Syntax and sentence formation:
As soon as a child begins to gather a vocabulary, they will begin to put them together and create sentences. The formation of these sentences is not random and follows a regular structure.
Between the ages of 1 to 2 years of age, children will largely only be able to form two-part sentences. These sentences take the following forms: action + agent, action + object, agent + object, action + location, entity + location, possessor + possession, entity + attribute, demonstrative + entity, nomination, recurrence, and various forms of negation. The following chart shows some examples of what these types of sentences look like:
Something to note is that, though missing large chunks of the sentence, the parts of the sentence that are present are located in the correct order to be syntactically correct. For example, while we don’t use the word “no” in the sentence “I don’t want more” it still represents the negation section of the sentence. When I was younger I used to say “Up me” when asking my father to pick me up. It seems like the “up” would be in the wrong place but as a child I was using the word up as a verb, the action of being picked up, and in the sentence “Pick me up” the “pick” part is the action and comes before the noun.
Moving in to the first half of age 2, children will begin using plural -s, the present progressive “ing” ending, and basic prepositions like “on” and “in.”
The second half of age two will bring the possessive “s”, some irregular past tense verbs, and the verb for “to be.”
By age 3 a child with begin using articles like “a” and “the,” will be using both regular and irregular past tense (though will still likely make frequent errors because conjugation is difficult), and will start using third person present tense conjugation. From the end of age 3 through age 4 a child will begin to be comfortable with more difficult grammar like: third person irregular, contractions, future tense, and auxiliary verbs. All of these skills will continue to grow and children will make less and less errors in their speech.
Speech errors are common and occur frequently, even in adults. Speech errors by children are usually less random, they tend to be repeated and follow a regular pattern. For me, all words beginning with the letter s as a part of a consonant cluster, began with a p instead. This was true for all words of this type, not only some words, and remained true until I grew out of it. I have never made this particular speech error as an adult.
There are nine types of common speech errors that adults are likely to make: Addition, Anticipation, Blends, Deletion, Exchange, Misdeviation, Preservation, Shift, and Substitution.
Addition: This occurs when a speaker adds a phoneme to a word. An example is, “toptical illusion” for “optical illusion.”
Anticipations: Anticipation occurs when a sound which is meant to come later in the utterance appears earlier as well. This sound can be a consonant or a vowel. An example of consonant anticipation is, “leading list” for “reading list.” And, an example of vowel anticipation is, “ricket ship” for “rocket ship.”
Blends: A blend is when two words become blended together. For example, the words person and people can be accidentally combined to create “perple.”
Deletion: This is when a unit of speech is deleted. For an example, think back to consonant clusters and the error in which only one of the two sounds is spoken.
Exchange: Exchange occurs when two phonemes are swapped, this can be a consonant, consonant cluster, or a vowel. A single consonant can be swapped, even when it is in a cluster with another. An example is, “brake fluid” becoming “blake fruid,” Or, the whole cluster can move. Something my mother has been known to say is “humpled creap” for “crumpled heap.”
There is also word exchange, in which a whole word is swapped for another. An example is “turn to tend out” for “tend to turn out.”
Misdeviation: Misdeviation is when an incorrect speech unit is attached to a word. An example is, turning the word “intervening” into “intervenient.”
Preservation: This occurs when a phoneme is carried over to a later part of a sentence. For example, “annotated babliography” for “annotated bibliography” or “rule or rum” for “rule of thumb.”
Shift: A shift is when an affix changes its location in the sentence. For example, “he decides to eat it” becomes “he decide to eats it.”
Substitution: This one is the equivalent of just using the wrong word and occurs when a unit of speech or group of units are changed into a different unit of speech. For example, “go sit at the stool” instead of “go sit at the table.”
Most of these speech errors are infrequent in adults and children over the ages of four or five.
Another thing to consider when writing dialogue, for adults and children, are speech disorders. There are many types of speech disorders that can be permanent/persist into adulthood, but frequently a child struggling with a speech disorder can get help through speech therapy to overcome certain types of speech disorders. Or, they may naturally outgrow them.
Childhood apraxia is when a child struggles with learning to speak due to a problem with their motor skills. This means that the link from their brain to their mouth in weaker and this makes it harder for them to form the sounds they need to make. The child knows and understands language but has difficulty in getting the words out.
Dysarthria is also a problem with motor skills, but on the physical side of it. The muscles needed to form words aren’t strong enough and words come out mumbled and difficult to understand. This can be caused by a stroke, for example.
Orofacial myofunctional disorder is caused by the tongue moving in exaggerated ways. This results in what many people would call a lisp. For example, a person may say “thumb” instead of “some.”
Stuttering is a disorder you are likely familiar with. It disrupts the fluency of speech. Stuttering can take many forms. Part-word repetition, as in, “w-w-w-where are you?” is one. Another is sound prolongation, like in, “Sssssave me a seat.” It can even show up as a series of inserted interjections like “um” and “you know” and “uh.”
Selective mutism occurs in childhood more frequently than in adulthood and is described as an individual’s choice not to speak at all, but typically in certain situations. For example, a child may not speak at school or to strangers but speak perfectly fine at home with family. This typically lasts about a month, but may persist longer.
A child may struggle with receptive language and/or expressive language. A person struggling with receptive language may have a hard time understanding gestures, following directions, answering questions, and the identification of objects. Someone struggling with expressive language may have difficulty with asking questions, forming sentences, memorization, using correct pronouns, and keeping conversation flowing. A child may also have difficulty with reading and writing or learning the alphabet.
Hopefully these facts about child speech can aid you as you write the dialogue of a child character. I feel that it is most important to remember that, while they can’t always express themselves fully, children are just as capable of complex thought as adults.
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.