An old friend wrote me recently to ask for my advice on speech impediments. You see, he knows that I talked like Elmer Fudd until I was 9 years old, despite the best efforts of many speech therapists, and he wants to know how I finally mastered the “r” sound. He has a young son who also has trouble, well, saying “trouble” and “rascaliy rabbit,” and anything else with an “r” in it, and my friend hopes I might have some ideas to help him.
Well, for my friend, his son, and anyone else out there who might find this helpful, this is what little I know:
According to the basic linguistics class I took in college, children usually learn to talk just by hearing people talking around them, then imitating those sounds. Most kids are amazingly good at this, but some of us—quite a few of us, actually—have trouble figuring out how to make certain sounds, or how to hear the difference between them. Common problem sounds in English include “th,” “sh,” “s,” “t” (and knowing the difference between those), and “r.” Some kids learn this late, but eventually figure it out on their own. More often, they’ll either need a speech therapist to teach them specifically how to make each sound, or they will sound strange and be subject to ridicule and misunderstandings for the rest of their lives. I needed help with all of the above sounds, and now I speak, if anything, a little bit too correctly. As a child, I sounded like Elmer Fudd. Now I sound like Frasier Crane. Why? Because, I am firmly convinced, speech therapists rock!
By the time I got to first grade, I still had trouble with “s,” “sh,” “t,” “th,” and “r.” I hadn’t noticed a problem by then, really. My parents and teachers were the ones who pointed out that I was different from other kids, and told me that I had to skip regular class (Aw, darn!) and go see a special teacher, a speech therapist, once a week.
The public school system in our area contracted with independent speech therapists. The district’s therapist came to each school once a week, and, probably due to the complexities of government contracts, our school had a different therapist every year. Sometimes my weekly session was private, and sometimes I met with the therapist and one other kid. During first grade, I was quickly cured of my “s/sh/t/th” confusion. I barely remember my work on those sounds, but the impression I have is that I was always able to pronounce all of those sounds, but I just didn’t know (or perhaps didn’t care) which sound to use when. I’d say “thee” instead of “see,” or “terapish” instead of “therapist.” Once the speech therapist pointed out the differences, then made me practice (every week for a whole school year) saying the right sound at the right time, I was good to go with every sound except “r.”
“R” was a much bigger problem because I never knew how to produce that sound at all. I kept going to my therapy session every week through third grade, every year with a different therapist trying different tactics to get me to understand how to make the sound, but it remained a completely foreign concept to me. As I went through second and third grade, kids started making fun of me, adults started acting pissy when their inability to understand me began to feel less cute and more irritating, and I was bloody well tired of the whole thing. I learned how to arrange my sentences to avoid saying any words with “r” sounds in them. To make this easier, I got into the habit of not speaking at all. Even though I finally mastered “r” in third grade, I stayed nearly mute (speaking only when asked a direct question, and then giving the shortest possible answer) until I was in high school.
In third grade, the way the therapist du jour explained “r” to me finally clicked. It may have been that the therapists before her had made some progress, so that I was primed for my “r” epiphany, but I think it was mostly because her own very practical and physical style worked particularly well for me. When someone finally told me exactly where to place the tip of my tongue (right behind the middle of my front teeth, and back about 1/2 inch up my palate), I was well on my way to the world of Frasier Crane. By the end of third grade, I still had to consciously think about where my tongue was and how to make the sound, but I said “r” every time I needed to. In fourth grade, my only meeting with a speech therapist was a checkup to make sure I was still “rrrrrrrr”ing properly. I passed with flying colors.
Over the years, making “r” sounds became less conscious and more automatic, though “r” is still the first sound that falls apart when I’m struggling with a tongue twister. I’ve been drunk enough to slur my words fewer times than I can count on my fingers (What can I say? I’m a goody two-shoes.) but I’d be willing to bet that when I do drink that much, it’s the “r” sounds that go bad first. On the other hand, I now speak very well. In fact, my speech now sounds fairly stuffy and over-pronounced. When meeting me, people often guess (rightly) that I’m an actress. I do well with Shakespeare. I’ve played British, Southern, Polish, and Irish characters (and once several of those in the same play), and received compliments on my accents. And though I was mute for a long time, and I still prefer writing over speaking, I act in plays and independent films, I competed on the speech and debate team all through high school, I’m a member of Toastmasters International (a club in which people get together and give speeches for fun), and I am sometimes overly chatty with friends. It took them a long time to finish their work, but I am deeply grateful to all of those speech therapists who worked so hard to help me make myself heard.
What I Think Happened, and How to Help Kids Now
While it took them a long, long time to get me speaking properly (and able to pronounce “speaking properly”), I don’t think there was any problem with my therapists’ competence. I think the problem is that, although speech impediments are very common in kids, the exact problem, and its exact cure, varies greatly from kid to kid.
For example, while many of my lessons were private, I often had speech lessons with another Elmer Fudd talkalike, a polite and kind boy named Andy. Andy explained that he’d had a nasty ear infection when he was a toddler, and it left him 80% deaf in his left ear. He had trouble learning to pronounce various sounds, and most of all “r” sounds, because he simply couldn’t hear what he was supposed to imitate. On the other hand, I have always had (and still have) above-average hearing. To this day, I don’t know why I couldn’t figure out how to speak English properly on my own. I don’t think the therapists ever figured that out, either.
On top of the many possible reasons why any particular kid might have trouble speaking, each kid learns in his or her own unique way, especially when learning something as personal and physical as how to make sounds come out of his or her mouth. A very practical approach (“Put this part of your tongue right here!”) is what finally got through to me, but other kids may do better with feeling vibrations, hearing sounds, or imagining some picture that makes sense to them. Speech therapists have to try many different techniques until they find out what works for each individual kid. I imagine that now, 25 years after my last therapy session, more techniques have been discovered, and there are even more ideas about how to teach “r” and other sounds.
My Advice for My Friend and His Son
Here is what I’d say specifically to my friend, and to anyone else who could use my advice: To master “r” sounds, the best advice I can give is to keep trying, but if what your kid and his therapist have been trying isn’t working, try something different. If one therapist isn’t working, and if you can, try a different therapist. I am convinced that speech therapists, on the whole, are fantastic people and marvelous teachers (because I am so grateful that I can speak and be understood), but like their students, they are individuals, each with a different style and personality. Keep trying until something clicks.
I realize that this can be very frustrating for parents. Trust me: It’s even more frustrating for the kid. If it is possible to find out why your particular kid has trouble producing the sounds, that knowledge could speed the process considerably. Has his hearing been checked? Is the structure of his mouth, throat, and vocal chords normal? If he has a hearing problem or a physical abnormality, this doesn’t mean he’s doomed. Andy got his “r”s down faster than I did. Therapists know how to work with these kinds of problems, and knowing your kid has one can help them find the best way to teach him. If, as with me, they can’t figure out why he has trouble, you’ll be stuck with hit or miss. Be patient, and keep trying.
Some other important things to be sure your kid knows: Pronunciation is not an indicator of intelligence. Not everyone knows this. Some people will get pissy with him, and some will even make fun of him. These people are jerks. They just don’t get it. Tell your son to pity them, and to feel free to ignore them as much as possible. Many of the smartest people I know have admitted to me that they had speech problems as kids, too. My best friend from high school (my old friend, if he’s reading this, will know who she is), who is now a microbiologist and college professor, had the same speech problems I did. Several folks I knew on my debate team had overcome either lisps or problems with “r”s. If a person can’t pronounce certain sounds, all it means is that they can’t pronounce certain sounds. That’s all. If you want to know about their intelligence, how cool they are or aren’t, or anything else, you’ll have to be patient and actually listen to them. This goes for people with speech impediments, people with disabilities, people new to speaking your language, everyone. Be sure the kid knows to give himself a break, and to let his experience teach him to be more patient in listening to other people.
Finally, rest assured that almost everybody does learn how to pronounce every sound in their native language eventually. Think of how many kids you’ve met with lisps or “r” problems. They’re so common that we even see them on TV and in movies. They’re such a regular part of childhood that they are often considered cute. Now try to think of an adult you know who talks like that. I can’t think of one. Can you? I can assure you that there are adults all around you who have conquered speech problems, though. We just don’t talk about it all the time—it’s part of our distant past. The path from a childhood speech impediment to a normal, confident adulthood is long, and it’s frustrating, but your son will make it. Just be patient with him, and encourage him to be patient with himself.