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Is It Okay If I Don’t Understand What My Child Says? Four Answers from the Experts

by Jennifer Gerometta, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Associate Professor, Speech Communication Studies, Iona College
and Maria Armiento-DeMaria, MA, CCC-SLP, Clinic Director for the Iona College Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic

You’ve been amazed at how your child’s communication skills develop as she changes and grows, but sometimes it can be hard to understand what she says. Some parents wonder if that’s okay.

Before we dive in, the first thing to get straight is the difference between speech and language. Speech is made up of the sounds your child makes when she talks. How clearly understood, or intelligible those sounds are when she speaks matters a lot, and there are different expectations for intelligibility at different ages. Language is the way we put words in order in phrases and sentences, and the meaning of those words. That is a topic we will tackle in an upcoming blog.

As the Director of Iona College’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, Professor Maria Armiento-De Maria has the answers to your questions about speech development.

Here are four common questions and the answers you need to know about speech sound development.

My child has had a lot of ear infections. Should I be concerned about his speech?

Ear infections could cause hearing loss. This hearing loss could affect speech sound development. It is important that parents and caregivers are aware that sound development happens in stages – just like the stages of learning to roll over, sit and walk. Exposure to speech sounds during early stages in life is important for speech sounds to develop properly. If your toddler has experienced ear infections and is not producing a wide variety of sounds this would be a good time to check in with a speech-language pathologist.

My son is not speaking like his older sister did at that age. Should I be worried?

As we know, every child grows and develops differently. Sometimes though, it is difficult to avoid comparisons. Some factors, such as gender, birth order and personality traits may influence speech sound development. A parent may want to seek help by a speech-language pathologist if they notice their child is avoiding saying words or having a hard time playing with others or making friends.

I can’t understand my child when she wants something. What should I do?

As the primary caregiver there may be times when you have a hard time understanding your child. One general guideline – after her second birthday, listeners should be able to understand about half of what your child says. After her third birthday, about 75% of what she says should be understood by others. If your child is becoming frustrated when she is unable to make her wants and needs known, this is a perfect time to seek out a speech-language pathologist.

My child’s friends are making fun of the way he talks. How should I handle this?

These are moments as parents and caregivers that we hope our children never experience. It is important for parents to know that sometimes there are growing pains associated with speech sound development. All typically developing children struggle to produce some sounds, and accurate production of all speech sounds may not occur until your child is eight years old! For example, if your son is four years old and does not have that “s” sound down just right, give it some time. If the “s” sound doesn’t sound crisp by his seventh birthday, a speech language pathologist can help answer your questions.

Iona College has a robust Speech Communications program, offering an undergraduate degree in Speech Communication, Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology and a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. The Iona College Speech and Language Clinic is a full-service speech and hearing teaching clinic specializing in patient-centered care, open to the community. The clinic is located at 83 Clove Road in New Rochelle, NY. For more information or to make an appointment, visit the clinic’s website.

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