Why Early Speech Development is Like Learning Russian

Why Early Speech Development is Like Learning Russian

A few years ago I found myself grappling with Russian pronunciation for a song my choir was rehearsing: a fast piece by Sergej Tanějev involving a lot of unfamiliar sounds. It’s a challenge to say the least. With my Speech and Language Therapist hat on, I was struck by the similarities between my own attempts to speak Russian and children’s early speech development.

It’s all brand new.

I have to hear each new sound repeated, to hear the subtle differences and see how it’s made. Then I need to try the sound on its own, before I can use it within a word, let alone a phrase. This is just the same process that small children go through with babbling: playing with sounds on their own, repeating them a lot, and copying what they hear from others. Many older children need help to use specific speech sounds and part of the therapy process is breaking sounds down in to these individual parts and playing with both producing and listening to the sounds.

My tongue feels weird in my mouth!

I’m used to speaking English fast and fluent, but with Russian I’m asking my tongue to move from one unfamiliar position to another; it feels slow and laboured. We don’t remember learning to speak our first language, so it’s easy to underestimate the incredible skills children need to coordinate the muscles in their mouth at speed.

You mean I have to do this whilst doing something else?

It’s hard enough moving my tongue in different ways, but I’m also having to make sure it sounds right, whilst learning new notes, handling my music and watching the conductor. At the age that children are learning to speak clearly, they’re also learning new words every day, and how to put these in to sentences. They’re negotiating the rules of social communication and how to pay attention, listen, and understand what others say to us. A tall order indeed.

I need help from others.

Many of the things that I’ve done to help my Russian is also helpful for children: listening to sounds and single words repeated at a slow and steady pace and having plenty of opportunity to try them out. The conductor has never put me on the spot and asked me to correct myself or ‘say it again’, so I’ve had lots of attempts without fear of getting it wrong. I’ve had to practise on my own, try it out in different ways, and repeat many times so that the mouth movements feel more familiar. I’ve needed lots of encouragement and patience from others, and so do our children.

(Picture courtesy of Pixabay: photographer StockSnap)

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