I don’t understand my child’s language

For many reasons, the language of a child is not always easy to understand. We often feel helpless about this. What should we do then?

It is not uncommon in my practice to meet parents who mention that they can’t understand their child when he is talking to them. Are there better ways than others to make everyone comfortable?

We already discussed this; our child is learning and not just the language. We all face a situation, at one point or another, when we don’t understand what our child just told us. Awkward! However, if it is possible to miss bits and pieces of a conversation, we should worry if more than one person frequently asks a child to repeat, especially if they are regularly in contact with him. If he is attending daycare or preschool, ask his teachers to listen to him more carefully and give you a neutral point of view. You could also consult a speech therapist to discuss the situation and see if something must be done.

With a stranger

Were you ever involved in a situation where a stranger was talking to your child and asked the traditional questions: “What is your name?” or “How old are you?”. Depending on the age of your child or the originality of his name, the adult did not understand the answer and was looking at you, seeking help. It is very tempting to answer for your child and help him out of this uncomfortable situation! Occasionally, when we are rushed or not interested, we do it mechanically but if we answer often and make it a habit, the child could think that he is not capable. He may become shy and even depend on the adult to a point where he will look at the adult when someone talks to him.

Why not try strategies that will make your child feel strong and make him proud to be understood by all since that is the sole purpose of exchanging with someone? Here are two examples:

  • If an adult asks the age of your child, step towards your child, take his little hand and say, “show your age to the lady with two fingers”.
  • If an adult did not understand the name of your child, try to tell him in his ear, loud enough for the adult to hear and tell him “Charles-Alexander junior”, “say it louder honey, the man did not hear because there is too much noise around”.

Because you are addressing him directly, your child will not feel incompetent and loose confidence in his speech.

And with you

In day-to-day life, your child speaks often. Sometimes you are available, next to him, sharing an activity: crafting, reading, watching television or playing outside. But there are many moments when you are busy during the day and then you may not be available to listen carefully to your child.

Of course, our availability changes the way we understand our child but some elements coming from him may also affect the way we understand his message.

Why we don’t understand a child

In his development, a child talks first about what is close to him, in his environment and what is going on. Thus, in his first words, we will hear names of people who take care of him, objects that concern him like “milk” or ”blanket”, words that lead us to act like “again” or that concern something that just happened like “gone” or “fell”. In general, his entourage understands those little words. As his intelligence and curiosity will develop, he will understand that things exist even if we can’t see them. He will begin to talk about “where is Choupi?”, “Grandma not home?”. And then he starts telling you what happened when you were not there. He tells you about his friends from daycare who have new names, harder to pronounce and the vocabulary becomes richer, the sentences are longer and all the sounds are not mastered. Wow! Sometimes, we don’t understand a word and our child gets angry or cries!

Checklist for parents who did not understand

Here are a few tips to clarify what was not clear. Try this:

  • Try to put the doubt on you instead of making your child feel guilty not to talk so well. Ask him to repeat but tell him that it is because you did not hear well. You can always say that you were busy or there was too much noise around.
  • As he repeats, try to pay attention to hints he is giving you in the room or if you could see something in his facial expression.
  • If your child is very young, see if he can show you what he is talking about in the room or in the house.
  • If your child is older, ask him if he could use other words.
  • Since you’ve understood a few words in his sentence, repeat them by guessing what you think he said. For example, if the child said “Want a so” you can say “What is so? You want a soup?”

And if it does not work, you can always say you are sorry about that and change the subject. Once again, don’t make it a habit and remember that if it happens too often, it may mean that your child is having speech issues. Don’t hesitate to contact a speech specialist.

Sylvie Desmarais
Speech therapist

Sylvie Desmarais has been a speech therapist for thirty years and is the mother of two big boys. She always wanted to make her knowledge about language and communication understandable and accessible. Former Université de Montreal teacher, she has given many conferences to parents of young children and she spent much of her career training doctors and early childhood professionals. She strongly believes in the importance of early detection of language disorders, which is why she participated in many activities to raise awareness and stimulate the development of language. For her, it is essential that parents follow the evolution of their children and communicate with them. It is to give them the tools to do so that she wrote the "Language guide for 0-6 years old children" (Guide du langage de 0 à 6 ans) published in 2010 by Éditions Quebecor. 2144, montée Monette Laval, QC, H7M 4T6 514-924-6471

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