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My 2-year-old is now capable of making certain phonetic sounds that he wasn't able to when he first started speaking.

For many words, he's adjusted his pronunciation slightly as he's used them more often, and we've not had to do any training. For other words, he continues to use the old, incorrect pronunciations despite his apparent ability to do otherwise. We tend to rely on repeating back complete sentences with proper pronunciations, or just having conversations where we slip in the target words, rather than doing any explicit correcting.

Specific examples:
He calls Captain America "Cappa Nappa". But, if I ask him say the words more slowly, I can get a "Cappin Uh-merta", which is closer and we're very happy with it.

When he first started referring to the TV he called it the "Deet" (a "word" he also used for other things). He can now say something like "Tee wee" or "Tee fee", but now he'll just say "Watch movie" or "Watch show", opting not to say TV at all.

We know he can pronounce the words better, but seems to be attached to the older pronunciations. This may just be because the older pronunciation is physically easier for him to say, or because we understand him well enough with his improper pronunciation, it's simply habit, or most likely a combination of all of those.

How can I effectively coach, train, and/or encourage my child to pronounce words in a new way, now that he's physically and/or cognitively able to make new sounds?

Or

How can I effectively teach my child to stop using their "nonsense words" and instead use the real words they're now capable of saying, when they have a strong personal preference to avoid the real words?

In our case, I feel that our son has demonstrated his ability to do better, but chooses not to because it is more challenging for him. I want to encourage him to try and tackle more challenging tasks.

We're very happy with his language development, and are more amused by or endeared to his mispronunciations than anything. But, I feel there are certain words we could more actively work on. Language is one of his primary learning activities, and I'd like to set the stage so that he's accustomed to having small challenges.

  • 5
    Don't teach. Just model, with your everyday talk. – Donnelle Jul 16 '15 at 3:14
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    As @Donnelle said: Just talk! I read an article a while back (cannot source it, because it lay on a friends table and I don't even know what magazine it was) that you don't need to correct. If your kid says "That's Duper!" just say "Yes, that is really Super!". The correct pronunciation normally just sinks in then, and the kid is not left with the feeling of having said something wrong. – Layna Jul 16 '15 at 6:00
  • We already do model correct pronunciation, enunciation and grammar. However, I don't agree that it's an effective method in my cases. Since we clearly understand our son, he has no incentive to correct his speech, even though we use the correct words and almost always repeat back to him for confirmation. But when he mispronounces words to the point that we can't clearly understand him, we can see him put extra effort into saying it better (or mastering the sign, for harder words). – user11394 Jul 16 '15 at 7:12
  • Then "stop understanding". If you are "a tiny bit stupid", you may motivate him to speak better. Some children love active help ("It's 'Sssssssuper', honey, not 'Duper'!"), others will clamp up like an oyster and decide it's not worth the humiliation. – Stephie Jul 16 '15 at 7:42
  • @Stephie Is that an answer? Do you have any references showing that methodology helps? How do we deal with the fact that he knows we understand those words, and instead gets frustrated at us being obtuse, rather than learning that he needs to say the words differently. – user11394 Jul 16 '15 at 7:45
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First: Pick your battles wisely. There is no need to train your child to use the proper words in each and every case. (And no, this is not the "Aawww, so cute when he says 'Duper!'" perspective, more an "The grass doesn't grow faster when you pull on it.") Even if you suspect "stubbornness" remember that your child has reached an age where he starts to assert himself and question your commands.

For those words where you decide to insist on proper (or better) pronunciation and simple modeling/repeating the correct word didn't suffice, consider a two-step approach:

  1. Selective deafness
    "Sorry, honey, what?" - child repeats - "Oh, you mean slightly over-emphasized correct word!" Then continue the conversation normally.

    • Do this best in a situation where it's plausible that you are a bit distracted and react like you would with any adult - in a "Sorry, didn't catch this properly, what did you say?" manner.
    • Don't do this when you are in a focused 1:1 conversation because in these cases it's way more important to communicate and bond than to enunciate.

    If you are afraid that this doesn't work at home, rely on time and the rest of the world. At the moment you are probably the most important conversation partner your child has. But soon he will want to talk to extended family, your neighbor next door or the nice lady at the bakery. None of these will understand him if he's too far off from the "common" language and this is a great motivation to use the proper words.

  2. Funny training
    Most children have one or two phonemes they really struggle with. If you get the impression that this really bothers your child, consider practicing, although two is perhaps a bit young for his. When our children were 3 we made up funny words that gradually introduced the concept.

    Example (in German, though, sorry):
    Daughter loved her toy FRog but couldn't get the 'r' after the 'f'. Her frog was named "Fritz Frosch" (=frog) and ended up as "Fitz Fosch" or "Switz Swosh". And she hated it that she couldn't say the "Fr"! Turned out that she could say "fish". We made up "rosh", which she mastered in no time. Then we had her say them together a few times: "fish - rosh - fish - rosh". Worked as tongue twister (which we had intended) that made her say "fosh" and "rish" as well. And from there it was "fish - rosh - frosh": Mission accomplished. "Fritz" was no trouble at all after this.

Finally, one thought on "choosing not to say the word at all":
Do you realize that he shows a lot of creativity and is practicing a valuable skill if he says "watch movie" when he can't/won't say "TV"? This is equivalent to us not remembering a certain word or term and changing a sentence so that we can get the meaning across without it. My children even made up words if they didn't know the technical term, and we always praised them for it - even if we did give the correct word (if there was one). So if I were you I wouldn't insist on using a certain word if he can say it in another way - language typically has not "one right" way of saying something but is very dynamic.

  • 1) Our son started questioning our commands as soon he could talk! His first word was "No" and he's been using it quite often since. I guess what goes around comes around. 2) He is amazingly clever when it comes to problem solving. Using different words, switching to ASL, finding things to climb on to get over gates (or pull them down, or lift them up) or ways to get into things he's not supposed to. It's definitely an admirable quality, even if it is occasionally frustrating for us. – user11394 Jul 16 '15 at 17:12
  • I'm not sure selective deafness is a good idea (no data, mind you, just a feeling.) In my mind, I doubt the child believes their parents don't understand him, and why they would pretend not to might be puzzling. Though children learn selective deafness (Parent: Time to brush your teeth! Child: ... Parent: Time to brush your teeth! Child:... ), I wouldn't want to be the one who taught them this. – anongoodnurse Jul 19 '15 at 8:11
  • @anongoodnurse It's not successful for us, anyway. He knows we know the word, or he knows his word eventually leads to the same result (which is us understanding), even if we make it take longer. So far, though, I have taken extra time the past few days to get him to slowly repeat a couple of the words (when's he's in a cooperative mood), while trying to come up with any other solutions & evaluate more words. My hope is that these practice sessions just eventually pay off, like speech therapy. – user11394 Jul 19 '15 at 8:53
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A toddler learn most of his/her early feats by imitation. That goes the same way with language. They essentially repeat what they have heard. Babbling is when they start to do that. The "wah-er-bah-dah" does not sound like anything you'd recognised, but it is their best attempt to say something they heard.

My 15 month-old daughter makes a few of those sounds in a row, indicating something, with apparently a clear meaning for her (and sometimes it is clear as well for us). Surely that isn't speaking. But you see, the problem of imitating words is that you have to identify them. If you'd hear a sentence in a completely foreign language to you, it would just be a succession of sound, and you'd be at lost to identify any words in it. That's what they hear.

Furthermore, I don't have the reference right now, but there has been some studies that indicates that children build their mastering of the phonemes of their language up to the fourth year. With that in mind, you can't expect your 2 year-old child to make it perfectly. Or shouldn't. He got the [s] part fine, but not the [su]. There's a small difference. He doesn't get the concept of letters that [s]+[u] = [su].

So how to teach? Well repeat. Again, and again, and again. With a lot of patience. By making sure you pronounce it correctly, and the other parent as well, the child will learn to recognise the sound. Then he will learn to say it. Which is also not that easy. He tries it, and only from your reaction can he understand if he did it right or not. And for that he needs to hear the difference between his pronunciation and yours.

If you have some experience with music instruments, think about it this way: the child has to tune his speech as well as his hear. Hard to get a C on a first try. And there are about 40 phonemes in English, not counting dialects or regional differences.

  • What's interesting about the imitation aspect in toddlers < 4 is that there's some evidence they don't hear their own mispronunciations at all. If they meant to say "bed" and it comes out "bad" they don't try to adjust their speech. This suggests they are "wired" to learn directly from others, first, and don't have the ability to self-correct . sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212000620 – user11394 Jul 16 '15 at 17:17
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Adding to Stephie's great answer --

  1. As she said, never correct -- simply ask. Example: "Can we have 'paghetti, Daddy?" "You want (slowly) spaghetti for dinner?" (Wait for nod or verbal response) "Let's see if we have some spaghetti in the cupboard, shall we?"

  2. If it's a multi-syllable word, and the child is getting them mixed up, step one is, you demonstrate the correct pronunciation, but in two distinct parts; then you say the first part, and let the child say the second part. From there you may be able to get the child to say both distinct parts, with a little pause in between, or you may prefer to wait until another day for that step. Example: child trips up on "television"; break it up as tele -- vision.

  3. Stephie gave the nice frog example. In general, look for an intermediate step. Example: child has trouble with "brother". Maybe something like this would be easier, temporarily: "burrother". If you determine that this is a good temporary solution, then just make sure you pronounce it that way for a few days or weeks, until the child can say it that way consistently and with confidence.

There is a long-range supportive thing you can do (which you probably are doing!), and that is to arrange play dates or small play groups, where meaningful peer-to-peer and child-to-friend's-parent communication takes place. I think that a child's motivation to conform to standard pronunciation will increase as he has more and more successful communication experiences with people outside his immediate family.

  • Unfortunately, like Stephie's answer, this is primarily info for teaching your child new words in general, which we have no trouble with. We're not insisting on perfect pronunciation, but I am trying to get him not to rely on his overly simplified words, when we know he's now capable of more. Some simple versions only we understand as his parents and no one else does. Even selective deafness techniques don't help, because when we say "Oh, you mean x?" he knows we understood him, even if it took a couple tries, so he doesn't seem motivated to try different different pronunciation. – user11394 Jul 19 '15 at 7:59
  • @CreationEdge Ah. In that case, how about a song or poem that incorporates a target word? From children's songbooks and/or made-up songs? I used songbooks as alternative bedtime reading, and also for some quiet time reading during the day. Also, it can be fun to have some simple songs that mark certain regular activities. It doesn't have to be great music. Example: My husband and son used to sing, "We are the trash men! We're taking out the trash!" while marching out with the trash with the little boy. It was a VERY simple melody, more of a change than anything else. – aparente001 Jul 19 '15 at 8:43
  • Let me see if I can come up with something for your Cappa Nappa example. How about if you read a book that has a captain in it? Say you have a book with a picture of a big boat. You can talk about the captain of the boat. Now you have, in essence a new word. It's separated from the Captain America context. Similarly, you can look at a globe together from time to time, and point to the place where you live, and show him North America. New word (because it's a new context) -- opportunity to teach correct pronunciation. LATER you could hopefully apply these to Captain America. – aparente001 Jul 19 '15 at 8:49
  • For the Tee Fee, I wonder whether other V words cause trouble? If not, and it's just a comfortable habit, then maybe it's time for everyone in your family to call that box the Television or the Telly, and help him learn that alternate name. – aparente001 Jul 19 '15 at 8:52
  • Actually, the reason I feel he should be able to now say TV just fine is because he says plenty of "tee" words and he can easily pronounce "Hy-Vee" (a Midwest grocery store chain). But, I think I realize that TV issue is that we now often say "Let's watch a show/movie" and that's it, as opposed to "Let's watch TV". We used to just say TV, but mixed it up to increase his vocab, and I guess we dropped TV when he stopped saying it, too. So, I've been trying to add back in TV by saying "Let's watch a show on TV". – user11394 Jul 19 '15 at 8:59

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