Children’s Accents

Toddler running

Photo: Jamie Campbell

Children’s accents tell us quite a bit about adult accents. From the speech of children, we can deduce which sounds of English are easily acquired and which less so.  And in some situations, we can find explanations for why accents lose certain features while preserving others.

I pondered all this while reading an article from Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University titled Acquisition of Scottish English Phonology: an overview.* The paper cites a study of young Scottish children’s speech, noting a distinct pattern for the ages by which kids master English consonants:**

–The consonants in pat, bat, mat, tip, dot, not, and well are fully mastered between ages 3 and 3 1/2.

–The consonants in king, got, fop, ring, vat, and heat are fully mastered between ages 3 1/2 and 4.

–The consonant in lot is fully mastered between 4 1/2 and 5.

–The consonants in sing, zap, shop, and leisure  are fully mastered between 5 1/2 and 6.

–The consonants in choose, juice and ring are mastered after age 6.

These results aren’t entirely surprising. Young children’s trouble with /r/ and /l/ is oft-observed (hence pronunciations like “wabbit” and “twubbow” for rabbit and trouble). I was unaware the “ch” in chocolate and the “j” in juice posed so much trouble for youngsters, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider the complexity of those affricates.

But (paradoxically?), even the youngest of Scottish children seem capable of learning nuances of the Scottish English vowel system. A feature of Scottish accents that I assumed to be fairly complex–the Scottish Vowel Lengthening rule–is mastered from a very early age (before 3 1/2). So while it can take a while for children to conquer some of English’s most salient features (/r/ and /l/ for example), they nevertheless pick up some of their accent’s subtlest distinctions shortly after the onset of speech.

This got me thinking from a dialect coach’s perspective.  It would be an interesting challenge to construct an age-specific accent for an adult actor playing a young child (a not uncommon situation). As the article suggests, this would require exceptional specificity. A three-year-old speaker has a very different accent compared to a five-year-old!

*Citation:  Scobbie, James M, Gordeeva, Olga B, Matthews, Benjamin (2006)
Acquisition of Scottish English phonology: an overview. QMU Speech
Science Research Centre Working Papers, WP-7.

**For clarity, I use the term “fully mastered.”  This isn’t exactly what the paper suggests, however.  It actually describes the ages at which 90% or more of the subject group exhibit complete mastery.  I’ve also (again for clarity) rounded up numbers such as 4 years, 11 months.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to Children’s Accents

  1. Stan says:

    Not surprising, no, but very interesting! I hadn’t seen these sounds broken down by age of mastery before.

    • trawicks says:

      I found it quite interesting as well! As I mentioned, many children would be expected to reach these milestones before these ages. I’d be curious to know what factors lead to some children mastering certain consonants earlier rather than later.

  2. dw says:

    Nothing about the dental fricatives — or do Scottish children, like many of those in southern England, not master them at all any more? They (along with possibly /ʒ/) are the only consonants my three-year-old can’t produce consistently.

    Btw, it might be interesting to investigate how having children changes the accents of their parents. I have changed the way I pronounce “ate” (past tense of “eat”), because it’s used a lot when talking to children, and my pronunciation with the DRESS vowel was confusing my daughter.

    • trawicks says:

      Don’t know how I missed that! They actually did list those (under the category of “fully mastered after six”). Although the paper frequently mentions the increase in the use of variants /f/ and /v/ among adults, which I’m betting confuses things quite a bit!

      You pose an interesting question. I think children influence their parents’ accents more than many would give them credit for. It would be easy to assume accents only change as a result of a parents’ contact with adults (co-workers, etc), entirely ignoring the young locals they spend the most time with!

      • Stan says:

        Children also influence their parents’ and wider families’ vocabularies. Two examples from my own immediately come to mind, one of them a nickname that was first used by an infant as an abbreviated approximation of a full name; soon the rest of us were using it.

        • trawicks says:

          Something I find hilarious, particularly among young parents communicating with each other, is when features of “baby talk” slip into adult conversation. (E.g. “I’m going to bed. I should brush my teefsies first.”)

    • IVV says:

      I’m quite curious about the fricatives in terms of learning to speak. My wife is from Germany, and I worked with her on the pronunciation of a number of words. I had an epiphany as she struggled with the word “survive”–she would say “surwive.” Yes, there’s stereotype of W -> V in a German accent, but I’d heard that V -> W also happened on occasion, like in this case. Why?

      I tried to copy what she was saying so that I could help her. I realized that what’s happening is that there’s no labiodental fricative in German, just the bilabial fricative! This is in stark contrast to American English, which has the labiodental, but not the bilabial. Suddenly, it made sense how the sounds of U and W could possibly have the same source as the sounds of V! I hadn’t even thought of the possibility of making a bilabial fricative before, just as she hadn’t thought of the labiodental fricative.

      But what’s going on here? How does one group learn the labiodental while the other learns the bilabial, and yet we both consider them the same sound? Is one group easier to learn than the other?

      • trawicks says:

        Where in Germany is your wife from? I’m no expert on German’s many dialects, but I’ve surmised that Bavarians/Southern Germans pronounce “survive” something like “surwive” because they use a labiodental approximant [ʋ] for /v/.

        But your wife may speak a dialect of German that has a bilabial fricative (as do a number of Dutch dialects). I wish I knew more about German!

        • IVV says:

          She’s from southwest Saxony, but it’s hard to say precisely what her dialect is. It’s a combination of Eastern Franconian and Upper Saxon. I personally don’t know the whole difference, but she’s clearly not Bavarian and Dresdners identify her as Saxon.

          She might use the labiodental approximant, now that I think about it, but her F was definitely not labiodental.

          Of course, spending years in the United States and speaking lots of English may have also morphed all those fricatives and approximants in ways I’m not entirely sure I detect.

        • Peder says:

          “I’m no expert on German’s many dialects, but I’ve surmised that Bavarians/Southern Germans pronounce “survive” something like “surwive” because they use a labiodental approximant [ʋ] for /v/.”

          Did you surmise it or read on Good Ol’ Wikipedia? :p

        • trawicks says:

          Haha, while I’ve spent more than my share of Wikipedia surfing, in this case “surmised” is the right word: Some years back I spent a few evenings with a friend’s coworkers who were recent transplants from Southern Germany (with some Austrians in the mix).

      • Andrej Bjelaković says:

        She’s just used to syllable initial /w/ in English, and hypercorrects. It’s not that uncommon with NNSs. Many Serbian students of English will say wowel rather than vowel. The /w/ is simply perceived as a very English sound, and initial /v/ is comparatively rare in English words. Hence the hypercorrection.

  3. marc b. leavitt says:

    Several months ago I watched the entire “Master of the Glen” series from the BBC, and I only managed to understand about half of it. The Glaswegian accent and dialect fills me with great respect for the wee Scottish bairns.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    I’m curious about how much one’s parents vs peers play a bigger role in accents/dialects.

    It seems peers have the upper hand. If your parents are from Ireland, but you were born and raised in NYC, it’s unlikely that you’d have an Irish accent/dialect once you’d mixed with other children in NYC.

  5. trawicks says:

    @marc,

    Glaswegian is especially hard because some people thought of as speaking Glaswegian English actually speak Glaswegian Scots (or at least a modified form of it). It’s one of the only accents of English, however, that I’ve seen subtitled in American theatres.

    @Charles,

    Although it’s worth noting that peer influence wanes as you get older. Many innovative dialect features that seem to spread among young people like wildfire disappear once the whole generation grows up.

  6. Olive Garcow says:

    The process by which children learn phonological rules is truly a mystery. First, it is amazing that children can learn speech sounds at all, particularly before two, given all the physiological mechanisms that must be coordinated. (Take just one exampe, the English sound /z/: the speaker must coordinate tongue, teeth, alveolar ridge, vocal cords, lungs.) How could a young child possibly learn to use these in concert? Of course, its a tacit knowledge of sound–they can do it, but aren’t aware of how.

    Another mystery: Why do children’s speech sounds emerge in the order they do in childhood? Sure, some sounds are harder than others, but why? One theory is that certain speech sounds are harder to say physcially. But decades of research show that children often are “stimulable” for a particular sound–that is they can accurately imitate it if asked to by an adult–long before they use that sound in everyday speech!

    So, if it’s not physical difficulty, maybe it has to do with children not perceiving auditory differences among certain sounds in everyday speech. This theory has also been challenged by research: In a classic study, three year olds were asked, “How do you say it: /r/abbit or /w/abbit? One confident preschooler replied: “Well, /w/abbit is /w/ight and /w/abbit is /w/ong.” Here the child can clearly hear the differnce between /r/ and /w/ in the researcher’s question, but has chosen to pronounce all /r/ sounds as /w/! On psycholinguist concludes: “Children don’t use adult sounds in speech, because they’d rather not.”

    Finally, research suggests that boys and girls acquire sounds (at least in English) differently–not just in the age of acquisition (girls tend to learn sounds earlier than boys) but in terms of the order in which they learn them. Do girls and boys experience different linguistic environments in their homes? Are there brains different in regions of the brain responsible for language? Anyone have a thought?

    Language is myserious!

    • dw says:

      I’m very interested in the boy/girl difference in learning. Do you have any links to further information on this? (My 3-year old girl is rather linguistically precocious, and she’s going to have a younger brother soon, I’ll follow his development with extra interest).

      What you say about difficulty of sounds makes a lot of sense. Obviously fricatives are harder than stops or nasals, because they require that the articulators be kept a small, but non-zero, distance apart. But why are the dental fricatives so hard? My daughter can make a dental fricative sound; however she refuses to use it linguistically.

  7. AUDIO NOIR says:

    as we all know our primate relatives (chimps, gorillas, etc.) can be phenomenally good at expressing themselves through sign language and in figuring out why the can’t just speak outright it is because no matter how hard they try they cannot form consonants. why that is while certain birds and even walruses can is anyone’s guess. nevertheless this could tie into why vowels and all their idiosyncracies are mastered by human children so much earlier than consonants. additionally, consonants like CHew and Juice are in fact two separate consonants pronounced as one (like a dipthong in vowels) and are therefore harder still to master.

  8. Rose says:

    /s/ is developed mud h before the age you gave an average on
    Also in response to the comment on the reason for chimps not acquiring spoke. Language verbally and consonant formation is crap. Language processes for verbal language contains a range linguistic, semantic, and syntactical processes that you can tell are not present in the way primates communicate. Please don’t simplify an area you clearly have no expertise in

  9. Rose says:

    Also /ch/ and /Dj/ are not two consonants they are one using two placement processes clusters like /fl/ and /br/ are two phonemes or consonants