We all know that communicating with someone else’s toddler isn’t always the easiest thing to do, so it should not be surprising to see other people struggling to understand your child. While you may know that “ba” means bag, or that they say “tuck” instead of truck, not everyone will be familiar with your child’s personal lexicon.
But while a certain amount of confusion is normal, most people should be able to understand the majority of what your child says. By age 3, a toddler should be able to repeat a seven or eight syllable sentence back with no mistakes, and about 80% of what they say should be intelligible to most people. Fortunately, a lot of the challenges children face with speech clarity can be traced back to 2 or 3 main issues, and addressing these can yield significant improvements.
One of the most common issues with speech clarity in young children is leaving off the last sounds at the end of a word. For example, a child might say “for” instead of fork, or “brea” instead of bread. This is perfectly normal for toddlers around 18 months old, but this habit should disappear by the time they are around 2 to 2 ½ years old.
To overcome this, try practicing words that end in the letters M, P, T, or K, as these will be the easiest for them to hear, identify, and repeat. Make sure to exaggerate these sounds when you speak, to emphasise their presence to the child, and ask the child to repeat the word until they start to include that sound.
Another common mistake many toddlers make is unnecessarily halting their airflow when speaking. This does not mean inhaling at the correct time to keep the flow of the conversation going, but refers to the ability of the air to get out of your body. Certain sounds we make require us to disrupt this airflow, which allows us to make a wider variety of sounds and words. But children often disrupt the flow when they are not supposed to, which can result in another sound or word.
Any sound that requires a constant flow of air can be disrupted by this problem. For example, they may say “feeting” instead of “feeling”. The way we use our tongues to produce the F and T sounds are very similar, but with the T the air essentially stops completely for a moment, while with the L it continues to escape around the sides. The most effective way to teach a child this distinction is to use what are known as minimal pairs, which are words that have just one difference between them, like feet and feel. By asking your child to repeat “feel feet”, they will be able to perceive the difference in the two sounds and make that distinction themselves.
A final issue issue that can make children more difficult to understand is a phenomenon known as prevocalic voicing. To understand this, you need to know that there are two types of consonants: those that use the vocal cords, known known as voiced consonants, and those that do not, known as voiceless. The voiceless consonants are C, F, K, P, S, T, and the Ch, Sh, and Th sounds.
Prevocalic voicing is when a child uses their vocal cords to produce what should be a voiceless consonant, result in a changing or mispronunciation of the word. For example, “cat” would become “gat”, while “pen” would become “ben”.
One theory as to why prevocalic voicing is so common in children is that they prefer the buzz created by our vocal cords when we use them. Since our vocal cords do not noticeably vibrate when we are whispering, this is the most effective way to get your child to pronounce the word correctly. Once they have done that, you can let them gradually raise the volume until they are speaking at a normal level.
Almost all children will experience these issues to some degree, so there is no need to be overly concerned if any of the above applies to your child. Usually these issues will work themselves out by the time the child is 2 years old, but can sometimes continue until the age of 3. The best way for you to judge the situation is to look at your child’s improvement. If they have had the same issue for the last 6 months with no improvement, don’t just hope there will be change in the next 6 months. If they are having one or more issues, you have tried home techniques, and there has been no change, then it is worth visiting a speech therapist to determine if there are any undiagnosed issues, or simply some more effective techniques you could try.