Why Can't I Understand My Child's Speech?

If you or others have a hard time understanding your child's speech, they may have articulation problems that make pronunciation difficult.
Why Can't I Understand My Child's Speech?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 25 December, 2022

Speech acquisition is a process. No parent expects their child to communicate perfectly from the first moment. Moreover, we know that language develops gradually. Even so, at a certain age, if you or others can’t understand your child’s speech, it can be worrisome.

The primary goal of speech is to achieve communication. Therefore, it’s normal for children to make mistakes and simplifications of language during their early years. Their goal isn’t to pronounce perfectly, but to make themselves understood by their adults of reference. In spite of this, it’s to be expected that progress will be made and that, by the age of 4 or 5, the child’s speech will be intelligible.

So, when this doesn’t happen, or if only you and other family members are the only one’s that can understand your child’s speech, something’s going on. So, what can you do about it? We’ll explore the issue below.

Why can’t I understand my child’s speech?

The first question that may arise in this regard is: when should I be concerned? While it is true that each child’s process is different, there are some guidelines that can help us.

For example, by age 2, parents and regular caregivers should understand at least 50% of what the child says; and 75% by age 3. And by age 4, anyone should be able to understand virtually everything the child says. But what can cause this not to happen?

By the age of 4, everyone should be able to understand almost everything the child says.If this isn’t the case, it’s best to consult a specialist.

Evolutionary process

As we’ve said, throughout the development of language, there are phonological processes specific to each age. That is, simplifications and other apparent errors are part of normal evolution. As they grow, children learn new phonemes and combinations between them, but until that happens, situations like the following arise:

  • Omissions: Characterized by the absence of a certain phoneme or sound. For example, saying “ool” instead of “pool”.
  • Substitutions: A sound that’s difficult to articulate is replaced by a simpler one. For example, substitute “think” instead of “sink”.
  • Assimilations: A segment is articulated with the phonetic features of an adjacent or nearby segment. For example, saying “beb” instead of “bed”.
  • Nasalization: Non-nasal phonemes take on nasal features. For example, “mear” instead of “bear”.

It’s common for these processes to occur at the beginning of speech development. However, they should begin to disappear between 3 and 5 years of age. From this point on, if a good number of these processes still appear, you could be looking at a disorder that requires an evaluation.

If, in addition to an affectation in the pronunciation of phonemes, there are deficiencies on a morphological (internal structure of words) or syntactic (sentence construction) level, you could be dealing with a simple speech delay.

Dyslalia

In most cases, when it’s difficult to understand a child’s speech, it’s usually due to dyslalia. This term refers to an alteration in the articulation of speech that leads to a difficulty in reproducing a phoneme. It can be simple, if the child’s unable to reproduce a single sound (for example, in the case of rotacism with the pronunciation of the r); or multiple, when it affects several phonemes.

Each phoneme is usually acquired at a certain time (for example, s, r, and z are among the last that children learn to articulate). Therefore, sometimes dyslalia is developmental and the simple maturation of the child improves their difficulties. However, when the expected acquisition time is exceeded, it’s important to intervene.

Therefore, there are different types of dyslalia that are produced by different causes that you should be aware of:

  • Organic: Articulation difficulties derive from physical alterations such as malformations in the organs involved in speech or lesions in the nervous system (dysarthria).
  • Auditory: The child can’t reproduce sounds well because they don’t perceive them correctly due to hearing problems.
  • Functional: Occurs when there’s no physical cause for the difficulties and they’re caused by a malfunction of the articulatory organs. There are motor coordination problems when articulating a phoneme.
A child with a speech therapist.
If the child has problems communicating after the age of 4, it’s important to consult a professional as soon as possible to prevent communication difficulties from progressing and affecting their self-esteem and sociability.

Speech therapy can help a child’s speech when it’s difficult to understand

If it’s difficult to understand your child’s speech and they’ve already reached the age of 4 or 5, they probably have one of the above difficulties. This is why it’s important to see a speech therapist who can evaluate your child’s personal situation, find the causes, and suggest the most appropriate intervention. Sometimes, all you need to do is wait for speech to evolve naturally, but it may also be important to support their development with a series of guidelines and exercises.

Encouraging speech at home through games, songs, reading, and conversations will be very positive. In addition, it may be necessary to reverse certain habits and implement specific lip and tongue exercises and other interventions that the speech therapist will design and apply. Early consultation is key in order to avoid future problems.

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  • Cab, A. I., Campechano, E., Flores, Y. G., López, C. A., Zamora, R. O., Reyes, A. & Vallard, E. (2012). Dislalia asociada a hábitos orales. Oral. Año 13. Núm. 41. 865-869.
  • Ortiz, V. (2007). Procesos fonológicos de simplificación. UDA. Disponible en: http://bibliotecadigital.uda.edu.ar/objetos_digitales/229/tesis-3384-procesos.pdf
  • Zapata, A. C. (2016). Clasificación y semiología de los trastornos del lenguaje en el niño. Revista EDUCA UMCH, (08), 45-62.

The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.