Phonological processes affect entire classes of sounds

In addition to simple articulation errors, children may produce erroneous phonological processes. These are errors that affect entire classes of sounds rather than individual sounds.

These processes are a normal and natural part of language development and are to be expected in children just beginning to speak. However, if they persist beyond age five or six, therapy may be necessary. These may include:

Velar fronting: The /k/ and /g/ sounds are articulated by making contact between the back of the tongue and the velum or soft palate. Sometimes children produce these sounds as /t/ and /d/ respectively, making contact between the front of the tongue and the alveolar ridge just behind the front teeth. Children with velar fronting may pronounce can't as tan't or goose as doose.

Palatal fronting: Similar to velar fronting, except that palatal sounds /sh, zh, ch, j/ are affected (shoe, vision, cheer, juice change to sue, vizzin, seer, zuice, respectively).

Final consonant deletion: Some children leave off the last sound of a word if that sound is a consonant. For example, they will pronounce boat as boe or feet as fee.

Initial consonant deletion: Similarly, some children omit the first sounds of words that begin with consonants (rice becomes ice).

Intervocalic consonant deletion: Intervocalic means between vowels. Consonants occurring between vowels, such as the /t/ in kitty and the /l/ in pillow, are in a very weak position, and are prime candidates for omission.

Consonant cluster reduction: a consonant cluster is two or more consonants in a sequence without any vowels between them, such as the /sp/ combination in speak, spot, or the /skr/ combination in scrape, scream. A child may omit one of the sounds (speak, spot, become peak, pot, though they may sound more like beak, bot, since the /p/ sound in these words is unaspirated); or they may combine them into a completely new sound (scrape, scream become chape, cheam). If your child ever embarrassed you in public by reducing the /tr/ in truck to the /f/ sound, welcome to the club--we've got hats (truckers' hats, in fact!). A consonant cluster may also occur in the middle of a word (picture, answer) or in final position (fast, felt,).

Assimilation: sometimes a sound will change to become more like a nearby sound (e.g., baseball becomes bapeball). The nearby sound may actually be separated by one or more sounds from the one that changes (e.g., yellow becomes lellow). Assimilation can be anticipatory, where a sound changes to resemble a sound that follows it (dog becomes gog), or it can be perseveratory, where it sounds more like a one that has already occurred (dog becomes dod).

Weak syllable deletion: This is pretty much what it sounds like. Unstressed syllables are weaker, i.e., less audible, than stressed syllables. An unstressed syllable just before a stressed one is in an especially weak position, and is very likely to be deleted. Construction becomes struction.

Metathesis: This is the reversal of adjacent or close sounds (ask becomes aks) or sound sequences (spaghetti becomes pasketti) Another example of methathesis is the pronunciation of nuclear as nucular. This switch is very common among adults, including such famous persons as George W. Bush; so if your child does this, don't worry--he can still grow up to be the president of the United States! Former president Jimmy Carter also uses a nonstandard pronunciation that sounds more like nukia.

Gliding: The /w/ and /y/ sounds are classified as "glides." Gliding is a phonological process typically affecting /r/ and /l/, which are classified as "liquids." It's probably safe to say that anyone who spends much time around Standard American English-speaking children has observed this process first-hand and can think of several children who pronounce /r/ and /l/ as /w/ (my right leg becomes my wight weg), or /l/ as /y/ (lemonade becomes yemonade). Less commonly, /r/ will be glided as /y/ (four becomes foy).

Stopping: Fricative consonants /s, z, f, v, th, sh, zh/ and affricates /ch, j/ involve air flowing through a narrow opening between two articulators (e.g., the top front teeth and the lower lip for /f/). If the articulators are pressed together instead of allowing space for the air together, a stop consonant /p, b, t/ or /d/ is produced instead. Face, vase become pace, base; cheer, jeer become teer, deer.

This is a list of the more common phonological processes, but it's not exhaustive. Some children produce phonological processes that are similar to these, but not an exact fit. For example, a sweet cherubic-faced kindergartener once shared with me that he liked ... well, if I printed it here the way he said it, the search engines would probably flag my site as pornographic. After what seemed like hours of awkwardness (in fact, probably about 7 seconds), I figured out that what he was actually saying was "fish sticks", but the /f/ was both stopped and voiced, becoming /b/; the /sh/ was affricated, becoming /ch/; the /st/ in sticks was reduced to /d/, and the final consonant /s/ was deleted. Please don't make me spell it out any more than this--it's bad enough that for quite a few years now I haven't been able to eat fish sticks without blushing.

Phonological processes can occur in combination. For example, if a child's pronunciation of spaghetti undergoes metathesis alone, we get pasketti; if it undergoes metathesis followed by weak syllable deletion, it comes out as sketti.

When speech-language pathologists speak of phonological processes, they are usually referring specifically to these erroneous or immature behaviors that cause children's pronunciation to deviate from the adult-like standard. This makes it sound as if phonological processes are something negative and abnormal beyond age five. However, I was a linguist before I was a speech-language pathologist, so I feel obligated to point out that we all produce phonological processes in our everyday speech. For example, when we produce the /k/ sound in car, the point of articulation is farther back than for the /k/ sound in key. This is an example of anticipatory assimilation--the tongue has to move forward for the vowel sound in key. In car, the tongue stays back and moves downward on the vowel, so it stays back farther for the articulation of /k/. Although these two /k/ sounds differ in articulation and acoustical properties, we perceive them as the same. That is, until some language nerd comes along and messes it up for us. Sorry.

Just for fun, see if you can identify what phonological processes are going on in these examples:

Couldja (could you)

Gonna (going to)

Leggo (let go)

probly (probably)

prolly (probably)

Jeechet? (did you eat yet)

no, skweet (no, let's go eat)

Another nerdy factoid: as you know, different languages have different sounds and sound combinations. Sounds and combinations that occur in a lot of languages are referred to as unmarked, while sounds and combinations that are marked occur in fewer languages.

'Open' syllables (syllables that end in a vowel sound, like tea are unmarked, because they can be found in just about all languages. There are a lot of languages out there that I know nothing about, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find a language that doesn't have any open syllables. 'Closed syllables', which end in a consonant sound (e.g., eat) are more marked than open syllables, because there are numerous languages that do not have them (e.g., Swahili, Hawaiian) or severely restrict them (e.g., Japanese has closed syllables ending in nasal consonants /n/, /m/, or /ng/, but no others; Mandarin Chinese has closed syllables ending only in /n/).

Consonant clusters are another example of a marked combination. While some languages, including English, allow two or even three consonants to cluster together within a single syllable (e.g., the /skr/ combination in scrape), many languages do not have consonant clusters or severely restrict them. I should mention that consonant clusters are restricted in English as well, though not as severely as in some languages. In English, for example, we do not begin syllables with /thn/, although Dr. Seuss intentionally flouted this rule when he invented the thnead in his book The Lorax.

An interesting thing about markedness is that the more marked a sound or sound combination is (i.e., the less common it is in the world's languages), the later they are to be acquired and the more likely they are to be subject to phonological processes. Final consonants are subject to deletion and consonant clusters are subject to reduction, assimilation, or metathesis. Marked sounds and sound combinations like /s/, /r/, and consonant clusters containing /s/ and /r/, are generally acquired later than unmarked sounds, and many children with articulation disorders have trouble with them.

Everyone produces phonological processes, but the immature phonological processes that persist and result in odd-sounding or erroneous speech may indicate a deficit in phonological awareness, and a need for therapy. If you notice your school-age child producing these phonological processes, check with a speech-language pathologist to see if therapy will help.

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